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Debate: Are You Over Cleaning?

By: Hsin-Yi Cohen BSc, MA, MSt - Updated: 18 Mar 2013 | comments*Discuss
 
Cleaning Over-cleaning Auto-immune

Do you often proudly survey your house – admiring the gleaming countertops, the spotless floors and the sparkling sinks that you have spent hours scrubbing to achieve? Certainly having a clean home is a worthy achievement but sometimes, the quest for cleanliness can become a single-minded obsession that could lead to bigger problems. In other words, your house could be too clean.

Is it possible to be too clean?

Too clean? You are probably wondering how anything can be “too clean”. After all, we owe a large part of our longer life expectancy and lower rates of disease in the developed world to better hygiene, sanitation and overall cleanliness in our daily lives. And it is unquestionable that cleaning and disinfecting hands, utensils and work surfaces thoroughly significantly reduces the transmission of bacteria and other disease-causing organisms. For example, in countries like China and India, twice as many people die from bacterial diarrhoeal diseases as from HIV/AIDS and yet most of these deaths would have been preventable simply through the use of good hygiene.

Having said that, however, it is possible to take things to extreme and actually “over-clean”. By stripping the environment constantly of all germs, using harsh disinfectants and antibacterials, you could be doing more harm than good: you could be wreaking havoc on the healthy development of your children’s immune systems; you could be inadvertently encouraging the growth of resistant “super bugs” and you could even be introducing toxic chemicals into your home environment that are far more harmful than a few bacteria could be.

So read on to find out if you are over-cleaning:

Do you only allow your children to play in carefully sterilised areas and with carefully sterilised toys?

According to Dr. Stuart Levy, Director of the Centre for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at the Tufts University School of Medicine, one of the most common mistakes that parents make nowadays is believing that their children need to be raised in a sterile environment. In actual fact, over-cleaning and over-sterilising the environment mean that children’s immune systems are not exposed to the necessary range of microbes needed for maturity and therefore don’t develop the necessary antibodies that make up the arsenal of a strong immune system. This means that they grow up either with greater sensitivity to infection and vulnerability to disease or in many cases, even develop auto-immune responses, such as allergies, eczema and other conditions.

In fact, researchers have long noticed that rates of asthma and allergies have surged in developed countries where constant cleaning with aggressive chemicals has resulted in an overly-sanitised environment. In one study, the number of inner city children with allergies had gone up by 50%! Furthermore, children reared in overly-antiseptic environments are believed to be more prone to auto-immune diseases like inflammatory bowel disease, Type 1 Diabetes and Multiple Sclerosis.

Do you panic if your baby is putting unwashed toys in his mouth? Do you never let your toddler play outside on the ground in the garden, for fear of the “dirt”?

As mentioned above, exposure to a range of micro-organisms is important to help our immune systems fully mature. In particular, however, there is a specific group of organisms which have been identified as crucial in the development of our immune systems and in regulating their function. These micro-organisms are found in abundance in mud and general ‘outdoor dirt’ – they include saprophytic organisms, parasitic worms called helminths and a kind of bacteria called lactobacilli. So letting your children “grub around” a bit in the dirt outdoors can actually be very beneficial. Obviously, this does not mean allowing them to play anywhere that might be a serious health risk – for example, near dog toileting areas – but a normal, clean garden should pose no real threat and may be very beneficial.

Do you always choose cleaners with the most powerful “antibacterial” or “disinfectant action”?

Another risk with excessive cleaning, especially using harsh aggressive commercial cleaners, is the introduction of toxic chemicals into your home environment. Take a look at the labels of most cleaners – from toilet bowl cleaners to all-purpose cleaning sprays – and you may be horrified to find that most contain very dangerous, caustic, toxic compounds. In fact, inhaling fumes from carpet cleaners can cause severe toxicity in children that require hospitalisation – something far more serious than everyday bacteria in the carpet fibres.

In fact, most ordinary germs can be dealt very effectively with just old-fashioned soap and hot water – or alcohol. Therefore, opt for cleaning products which contain fewer strong chemicals or even try to choose environmentally-friendly which often contain plant derived ingredients instead.

If you have answered yes to any or all of the above questions, then it may be a good idea to take a step back and see if you are becoming a bit too obsessive with your cleaning. Ultimately, scientists and doctors agree that humans have evolved to live in harmony with many of the ‘harmless’ bacteria which inhabit our environment and over-cleaning to try and sterilise your environment is not only misguided but can actually do you and your family more harm than good.

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