As It Happens, Not Next to “Godliness”
I’ve just completed reading Jessica Snyder Sachs’ fascinating Good Germs, Bad Germs: Health and Survival in a Bacterial World, a rather eye-opening look at both the futility and danger of our modern war on germs.
I’m not a germophobe per se; in fact I’m personally somewhat filthy compared to many people I know. I did get really freaked over the swine flu that was making the rounds last year, but that was the result of both having read in-depth accounts of the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and my admittedly limited knowledge of biology, which is still broad enough that I recognized that any type of flu virus novel to humans could become a Very Bad Thing if it managed to get into even one human body at the same time another flu virus was residing there and the two started swapping genes. Even a relatively mild virus can become a killer when given the right human petri dish in which to mutate.
The same, of course, is true of bacteria. They are living organisms and like all life, they evolve and adapt to their environment. In the case of the human body, they’ve adapted so well that we each carry around an estimated 9 times as many bacteria in and on our persons as we have living cells in our bodies. We are, literally, biomes for bacteria. This carries both blessings and curses; blessings in that the bacteria in our intestinal tracts literally feed us – without their activity, we could not break down food into its constituent nutrients for absorption. The curses are of course well-known and recognized – the wrong bacteria can kill us, either directly through damage to body systems, somewhat directly with their toxic byproducts, or indirectly by over-exciting our immune systems which end up destroying our own bodies. Given their ubiquity and ability to reproduce – and mutate – a million times faster than we can, probably any attempt to outflank the bad bacterial actors via development of antibiotics is predestined for failure.
That’s the bad news – and it gets worse: every time we use an antibiotic to fight off a bad bug, we also kill the good bugs, opening up new niches for colonization by bacteria that may be less helpful than the original inhabitants. We’ve made the problem worse with use of “antibacterial” cleansers such as products containing Triclosan which function more as an antibiotic than a true sanitizer. Bacteria have proved just as adept at mutating to be resistant to these cleansers as they have antibiotics. Worse yet, use of these products is making bacteria more resistant to the antibiotics we count on to fight off infection when a bad bug gets into the human body.
This is not to suggest that we’re worse off for modern sanitation – keeping cholera and E. coli out of the drinking water supply has had nothing but beneficial results. But we have become perhaps wimpier due to our isolation from the wide variety of bugs, both good and bad, to which humans for most of our evolutionary history were exposed on a regular basis. Most of us intuit this on one level or another, regardless of how obsessed we are with cleanliness – we know that animals both wild and domestic are exposed to more bacteria than we are. We don’t think twice about feeding food we’re not sure is still fit for human consumption to a dog or a cat – or at least we don’t if we’re sensible. Dogs eat crap – both their own and other animals’. Cats kill and eat rodents, ingesting along with them all the germs they carry. Most of us recognize that a burger or chicken that’s been in the fridge for a day or two beyond when we would eat it won’t faze an animal – they have “tougher guts” thanks to their closer daily contact with the microorganisms that abound in soil and elsewhere.
The current hypothesis is that rates of auto-immune disorders such as allergies and asthma have skyrocketed in the past century for exactly this reason – we have sanitized the good bacteria which have beneficial effect on our immune systems out of our environment. Perhaps not coincidentally, rates for these types of disorders are lowest among farmers and others in rural areas, and almost unknown in many rural Third-World nations.
The new horizon in the war on bad germs seems to be identifying the good ones and encouraging them to take up residence. As Sachs details, various researchers are working with a wide variety of bacteria to advance treatment for everything from gingivitis to Crohn’s disease to rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and a host of other human ailments. In some cases they’re working to make the good bugs more effective colonizers; in others, they are genetically engineering bacteria to operate the on-off switch that causes auto-immune disorders.
Many obstacles remain, of course. Physicians still over-prescibe antibiotics, often for conditions where their use accomplishes nothing more than wiping out our beneficial microflora. Livestock are fed tons of antibiotics on feedlots which has led to soil bacteria that literally eat antibiotics for breakfast – not to mention outbreaks of deadly E. coli infection. And far too many of us seem to believe that we can sanitize ourselves to health, in the process accomplishing little more than aiding bacteria in gaining resistance to our only current line of defense against them while at the same time killing the good bugs and opening up niches for the bad ones in our homes and on our bodies.
So while it may be “filthy” for me to pet the cat and then eat without first washing my hands, or give her a kiss on the head after seeing her rolling in the dirt in the backyard, it hasn’t killed me yet. I’ll continue on with my nasty ways, eschewing the antibacterial soaps and cleaning supplies as well. As I like to joke, I’m the least medicated person in America, having taken only one course of antibiotics in over 20 years now, that being a relatively wimpy few doses of amoxicillan when the dentist suspected an infection that might require a root canal (fortunately, he was wrong – just an inflamed nerve from an ill-fitted crown). I’ll continue to spray down the raw produce with vinegar and hydrogen peroxide – with all the E. coli out there, you’d be foolish not to – as well as the countertops, because no bacteria adapted to causing illness in the human body will ever develop resistance to oxidation or over-acidity. But as for running to the doctor every time I have a sniffle, or nuking the house with Triclosan? No way. I want to keep my friendly bacteria alive and thriving.