A new report from the Royal Society for Public Health suggests that health is not affected by too much cleanliness. They agree that kids should play in the dirt but parents should make sure they wash their hands. Fair enough. I wrote the following some while ago and still believe in it.
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When I was a kid, I bet I ate a whole field’s worth of dirt as I played. My mates and I mucked around in the Thames which, in those days, was little better than a sewer; we got colds and upset stomachs and simply ran them off, more as likely in pouring rain. Sometimes we got real diseases like mumps and measles but they were considered age appropriate and we all knew it would be over in a week or two. If any of us had suggested we had an allergy to peanut butter, say, then we would have been stuffed with it until we got over it. We spent our childhoods shaking hands with every germ and bacteria on the ground and in the air and we grew up to be a fairly healthy generation.
These days parents protect their kids from any kind of contamination and we have the sickest kids in history, I bet. Many parents pride themselves on keeping their home environments as — or more — sterile than hospitals. And yet their children have allergies to this and contra-indications to that. They are as clean as they can be and they are sick as dogs.
I believe there is a direct relationship between the health of kids and the amount of dirt they eat. The more bugs they collect early in life, the better immunities they develop later; and the more sniffles they get as a child the less likely they are to show hypochondriac tendencies as adults. To put it another way, the less a household pays in cleansing and sanitizing and “protecting” their kids, the less they will need to spend in health care costs later.
This change from healthy dirt to dangerous prophylaxis has occurred within my lifetime. How did it come about? Marketing and capitalism, that’s how.
By the 1940s and 1950s, major industrial cleaning companies had developed a whole range of cleaning solutions. No one really needed them, but the marketers set out to convince parents, mothers especially, that they were doing their children great harm if they did not use their products. They used fear as the primary motivation — not only fear of sickness in their kids, but more viscerally the fear of appearing to be a bad mother. And they succeeded perhaps beyond their wildest dreams.
And now we are all paying for it, with a generation of children with allergies and neuroses and medical conditions that were almost unknown fifty years ago. It sure did the Johnson & Johnsons and the Hoovers of the world a lot of good financially, but is this really progress?