I'll Trade You Two Staphs for a Lactobacilli

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen, November 27, 2001

In 1674 Antoni Van Leeuwenhoek, through his new invention, the microscope, looked at his own saliva. His discovery of an unseen world teeming with life led to the development of microbiology. It has also led to the now modern neuroses that “all germs are evil”.

Bacteria cover our bodies. No matter how long or hard we wash and scrub ourselves, these germs easily repopulate those nooks and crannies; some areas more than others. The worst area is our mouth. It is estimated to contain 500 species of bacteria numbering in the hundreds of millions per tooth! Some reside in the crevices of your tongue leading to bad breath, others in your cheeks, tonsils and gums.

There are two types of bacteria: anaerobic and aerobic. The former prefer non-oxygen containing environments while the latter needs oxygen to survive. Each has its own favourite place to live.

Our perception of what is dirty is primarily psychological. We pay little attention to the dirt and grime we accumulate while playing soccer, football or baseball. We rarely shun the weight room even after people have sweat upon the machines and barbells. Breastfed infants do not suck from sterilized nipples yet we do so for bottle-fed babes. We kiss our infants and children, the cleanest little people on Earth, share food and drinks with friends and French kiss our lovers.

If those same people were to spit into a glass Iâll bet none of you would drink it! We run for cover when using public toilets, touching doorknobs and wash our hands, phones and desktops with antiseptic for fear of catching a disease. The media and hygiene product manufacturers have played up the risk of infections. They have created a fear that evil microbes lurk around every corner waiting to attack.

Although it is reasonable to be pragmatic about cleanliness, there is something to be said for getting down and dirty especially when young. Our immune systems need a constant challenge to stay strong and healthy. In fact, a study out of the U.K. demonstrated that large families living in crowded conditions had lower rates of asthma, seasonal and food allergies and eczema. They discovered this phenomenon because these families had high rates of Hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is spread through unhygienic food preparation, contaminated water systems and infrequent hand washing; ideal conditions for bacterial exposure. This finding was reproduced in an Italian study of military recruits.

It gives one pause to wonder why we see so many children with food allergies and asthma. Are we too fastidious keeping them clean? Perhaps this is a contributing factor to this problem.

Bacteria help protect our bodies from more nasty organisms. They fight off invaders that attempt to colonize their living space. For example, within the vagina lactobacilli produce lactic acid inhibiting yeast growth. Yeast is also a normal constituent of vaginal microorganisms. With antibiotic use the risk of vaginal yeast infections increases because the lactobacilli are destroyed.

What is the filthiest place in your house? We scrub and clean our bathrooms. Showers and bathtubs are disinfected using mould and mildew killers and bactericidal products hang inside our toilet tanks. Carpets are vacuumed with odor killing powders sprinkled upon them for good measure. Advertisements for new and improved cleaning products flash across our TV screens. It is as if the older products they replaced left your home a festering cesspool.

But fear not. For I have a suggestion that will make the ideal Christmas gift. It will dramatically reduce the rates of harmful bacterial growth in your home. It will jazz up the filthiest pace in your house. It is cheap, lasts forever and comes in many sizes and shapes. Because the filthiest place in your house is ÷ the kitchen sink. There are more E. coli in that drain than in your toilet.

Chicken, beef and other contaminated foods are the source. A study of sinks and sponges in the U.S. showed that a majority of homes were contaminated with pathogenic bacteria including staphylococcus and salmonella. A drop of water from dishcloths and sponges contained over a million times more bacteria than found on bathroom surfaces. Kitchen sponges, even as they dry over two days, harbour millions of bacteria.

The ideal gift? A cutting board. Not just any cutting board; a wood one. Plastic ones promote bacterial growth and are a source of food contamination. Bacteria produce biofilms that stick in all the crevices in the plastic. They will die after three minutes even if nestled in the cuts and chips in the wood; not so for the plastic board. In minutes you can sterilize the wood (if wet) in the microwave. The same cannot be said for plastic.

So if you get a strange look for giving them this gift, you can proudly say it is  better than a toilet puck, and be absolutely right. Merry Christmas.

© Dr. Barry Dworkin 2001

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