“Handwashing Police” is a term that is often used to describe my job evaluating child care programs. To be fair, there is some truth in that characterization. When we assess programs with the Environment Rating Scales, hand washing and sanitizing are a big component of what we look at in the area of health and safety. But there are some questions about germs that linger in the back of my mind. Are we doing more damage than good by requiring all of this hand washing and bleaching? And if these children are also living in a sterile home environment, what are some of the long-term health consequences of this? And why does it seem that nearly every child care center or home I visit has children with allergies and/or asthma? I certainly don’t remember it being so prevalent when I was growing up. And finally on a personal level-when I started this job, I was sick all of the time because of germ exposure and now I hardly ever get sick, even though my exposure to germs hasn’t changed? Why is that? Is it because exposure is good for me or is it because there are fewer germs in our child care programs? Well fortunately a lot of new research has come out recently on being pro-germ as well as anti-germ, so I thought this month I would take at look at the pro-germ theory.
First let’s take a look what has changed in our environments. In America, there seems to be a shift in our culture that encourages us to bleach, sanitize, wash with anti-bacterial soap, and should you get sick, well there’s an antibiotic you can take. In fact, one of my Google searches for this article brought up “The 12 Germiest Places in your Life,” “Cute Little Bath Toys can Harbor Germs,” and my favorite “Are you Showering in Dangerous Germs?” It seems that our number one enemy has now become the “Germ” and the prevailing message is that we must protect ourselves and our children at all costs. Some other notable shifts are:
- Children spend less time playing outdoors: A Hofstra University survey of 800 mothers, with children between the ages of 3 and 12, found that 70 percent of mothers reported playing outdoors every day when they were young, compared with only 31 percent of their children. Also, 56 percent of mothers reported that, when they were children, they remained outdoors for three hours at a time or longer, compared with only 22 percent of their children.
- Smaller families: It used to be that we lived in families with multiple children and had more exposure to extended family members. But now with most homes only having 1 or 2 children and extended families living further apart, lack of exposure to “good” germs becomes an issue.
- Central heating with lack of fresh air: Many American homes now come complete with their own air conditioners, vaporizers, humidifiers, central heat, etc. What the home is lacking is fresh air. Studies have shown that exposure to fresh air is vital to building and protecting a child’s immune system.
So what has all of this protection from germs done to us? From as far back as the 1980’s, scientists have been analyzing the role that the environment plays on our immune system. After noticing an increase in allergies, asthma and other diseases ( including more recently childhood Leukemia, and in adulthood, MS and cardiac problems), they have developed a “Hygiene Hypothesis.” The “Hygiene Hypothesis” simply states that when exposure to parasites, bacteria and viruses is limited early in life, children face a greater chance of having allergies, asthma and other autoimmune diseases during adulthood. In fact a 2009 study conducted by Northwestern University where researchers collected data from thousands of children over two decades in the Phillipines, found that a healthy dose of germs and pathogens during infancy reduced cardiovascular inflammation in adulthood-a precursor to heart attacks and strokes. In another study published this February in the Journal of Asthma, found that factors that are protective for the development of asthma were breastfeeding more than 3 months, history of nose or throat infections often in childhood, early daycare attendance, presence of two or more siblings at birth and dwelling in rural non-central metropolitan areas. As you can see, many of these factors involve being exposed to germs.
So has our society taken this germ-a-phobia thing too far? Or do you feel that protecting ourselves and our children from getting sick (especially with some of the new viruses going around) is really what’s best? Let me know your thoughts and next month I will discuss the anti-germ theory.