Can we please stop washing our hands so much?
What used to be considered obsessive-compulsive disorder — wash, wash, wash, gee, I think I’d better wash again — is becoming the norm. At the grocery recently, I watched a mom avail herself of the cleansing towelettes provided in the customer service line. Then she gave one to her daughter. I just had to ask her why, since customer service is not heart surgery, and no one really needs to be particularly scrupulous about their hygiene when asking if they can get five 10s for a 50. (And moments later, won’t they be touching the filthy lucre anyway?)
“Oh, I just wanted to refresh my hands,” said the lady. OK. Her hands didn’t look particularly tuckered out, but there you have it. And I mean that literally: There you have it, and there and there. Our landscape is littered with hand cleaners, baby wipes and Purell dispensers. It’s as if we’re supposed to think of all public places as putrid.
Now comes word that all that self-cleaning is actually making the environment dirty. A study just released by scientists at Arizona State University found antimicrobial compounds lurking in lakes, streams and rivers. We may wash the stuff off, but it doesn’t just disappear.
“Everything goes down the drain, of course,” says Benny Pycke, a postdoctoral research associate who worked on the study. Water from our sinks (and toilets) ends up at the wastewater treatment plant before it is released back into the environment. “However, these plants were not really developed to treat chemicals that are as persistent as these and many others that we call ‘micropollutants,’ such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products,” says Pycke.
In other words: These small, long-lasting pollutants slip through the cracks and back into our waterways. And there, says Pycke, they stick around for a surprisingly long time. Analyzing sediment samples from freshwater bodies in Minnesota, he found antimicrobial compounds from the 1970s — way before they were as popular as they are today.
Are these cleansers killing off fish and fowl? I really don’t know, and it doesn’t sound like science knows for sure yet, either. What scientists are certain of, however, is that these soaps aren’t doing us much good even before they sluice down the drain. That’s because in order for the antimicrobials to kill the microbes on our skin, they need to be on our skin for longer than the typical hand-wash. “The contact length of having your hands on your soap is generally too short for them to act adequately,” says Pycke. “So they don’t really serve a purpose.”
How do you like that? We run out and get the superduper germ-killing soap. We maybe even pay a little extra for it. Then we wash it off too fast for it to have any effect … except as a pollutant.
Why do we want to be so clean anyway? Haven’t we seen the studies showing dirt is good for kids? Builds their immunity? Maybe protects them from asthma and allergies? Or the studies about depression that suggest it may be triggered by the loss of healthy bacteria? Or even the weird new research into how parasitic worms may — I’m quoting The New York Times here — “ease the symptoms of autoimmune diseases by increasing mucus production.”
OK, OK, you’re probably running to gargle with Purell just reading this. But remember before you buy your next antimicrobial cleanser: Super-cleanliness isn’t necessarily next to Godliness. In fact, it may be next to pointless.
Lenore Skenazy is the author of “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry),” and, “Who’s the Blonde That Married What’s-His-Name? The Ultimate Tip-of-the-Tongue Test of Everything You Know You Know — But Can’t Remember Right Now.” Her columns appear frequently in The Mountain Eagle.