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Science in society – politics, development and social justice.

Don’t fear dirt!

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An etching caricature of Faraday giving a filthy Farther Thames a card

The Great Stink of 1850s London was a pivotal moment in sanitation in the city, precipitating the building of Bazalgette's sewer. But have our lives become too sanitised?

A watershed moment in our perception of disease came with the discovery of penicillin. All of a sudden we had the power to beat infections which would have killed the strongest.

The wonder drugs that are antibiotics beat back the deadly microorganisms. With such a weapon in our arsenal it was assumed that at last we would rid our world of pestilential microbes.

William Stewart the Surgeon General of the USA in 1967 said:

“The time has come to close the book on infectious diseases. We have basically wiped out infection in the United States.”

This could be seen as emblematic of how our attitudes to science and nature have changed. In the 1960s we assumed the automobile economy was the wave of the future; we saw nature as something to master; we thought we could wipe out all infections.

As we moved from the twentieth to the twenty-first century however we have developed a more conservationist approach. Biodiversity, sustainable development and halting climate change are the recurring themes of current popular discourse.

With the hygiene hypothesis and its various reincarnations we understand that exposure to microorganisms as children could be beneficial to our health. Our immune systems require priming with the antigen of microorganisms as it develops otherwise, it is theorised, our bodies view pollen or dust particles as malicious invaders.

It has been suggested that the “epidemic of allergy and asthma” in the Western world is because we all live too highly scrubbed and sanitised lives. As Mary Douglas pointed out: “dirt is merely matter out of place“. Yet we associate it with filthy, insanitary horrors. Look at Howard Hughes (aka The Aviator), regard the endless bleach adverts decrying the filth in your kitchen.

It is as if we are pathologically fearful of muck, grime and gunk. Frankly, considering the long running battle fought against disease it is hardly suprising. But we are now in a world where we can appreciate the benefits and the harm bacteria can do and it’s time to stop being quite so precious about dirt.

Image is in the public domain, uploaded by The Peel Web


VONMUTIUS, E. (2007). Allergies, infections and the hygiene hypothesis – The epidemiological evidence Immunobiology, 212 (6), 433-439 DOI: 10.1016/j.imbio.2007.03.002
Strachan, D. (2000). Family size, infection and atopy: the first decade of the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ Thorax, 55 (90001), 2-10 DOI: 10.1136/thorax.55.suppl_1.S2
Holgate, S. (1999). The epidemic of allergy and asthma Nature, 402 (6760supp), 2-4 DOI: 10.1038/35037000


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