Discovery Guides Areas


Hygiene in the Industrial World:
An Unhealthy Obsession with Cleanliness?

(Released June 2011)

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  by Kathryn Mori & Carolyn Scearce  


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Pop Culture and the Interpretation of the Hygiene Hypothesis


Though they are often simplified and occasionally misquoted, the ideas behind the hygiene hypothesis have made their way into popular culture in the US and UK. The hypothesis is discussed on popular radio shows and in blogs. A good example of a movement which has embraced the hypothesis is the “free range kids” movement.

This movement began when columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote about allowing her 9-year-old son take the subway home alone. Unexpectedly, there was a huge response, especially among the online community. Many people condemned her behavior as reckless and irresponsible parenting, and just as many people who were tired of what they considered the coddling of this generation of children by their overprotective parents. The columnist began a blog called “Free range kids” where she wrote about letting children have more freedom and the same level of independence that children had when she herself was a child, and a community was born (Newsweek). One of the fundamental ideas of free range parenting is “let your kids do things for themselves and they will be stronger people.” In concept, the hygiene hypothesis is something that is basically tailor-made for such a philosophy, and the movement has latched on to it wholeheartedly.

Many of the writers associated with the community have embraced a simple interpretation of the theory. One summarizes it as, “The main thrust of it is that by cocooning children through disinfecting their entire lives you stop the proper development of their immune system (Shepherd).” In essence, their philosophy is that the more we protect our children from their environment the weaker they become. Some writers complain about people washing and disinfecting their hands before being willing to hold a baby, or obsessively trying to protect children from catching so much as a common cold. One writer quotes a study where children who go to daycare from the age of six months have twice as many colds as kids who stay home, but a third as many colds as kids who did not attend daycare at a young age from the ages of 6-11. The blogger believes this study suggests that the children who attended daycare have stronger immune systems (Graff). Free range parents generally embrace choices such as “the five second rule.” That is, if your child drops something on the floor, let them eat it anyway. Let your children go out and play in the dirt. Let your child catch a cold from time to time.

Often the free range writers are not only concerned with the health benefits but also the psychological impact of raising children to fear the environment around them. They complain about a multibillion dollar industry for “cleanliness” playing on or even creating a culture of fear. By over-protecting our children we are communicating to them the feeling that they are vulnerable and weak. In the words of writer Laura Manuel, we are telling our children that “the world is a scary place full of bacteria . . that they need to be protected from at all costs.” She believes that this disempowers children to go out and explore the world as strong independent individuals. Of course they believe in basic hygiene principles like hand washing, baths, and children brushing their teeth. They simply want to avoid the idea of basic hygiene being replaced by a kind of obsessiveness and fear that can create “weak, dependent, passive children shuddering at the thought of going outside to play (Manuel).”

Susan Weissman, however, goes a good deal further than most. Her son was administered antibiotics just after birth, and while they may have saved his life, he has developed extremely bad allergies. She discusses the work of David Pritchard, an immunologist who purposefully infected himself with a hook worm in hopes of supporting his theory that parasitic infections may actually improve the function of the human immune system. In the face of such severe allergies, she has taken her son to various places in hopes of letting him get some kind of parasitic infection, though she has wavering levels of commitment to the idea (Weissman).

Infectious Necator americanus (hookworm) L3 Larva
Infectious Necator americanus (hookworm) L3 Larva.

According to current theories, allergies may be caused by an underdeveloped Th-1 response and an over active Th-2 response. There is some evidence that certain parasites may help balance these two responses (Terlisner). A review on the Worm Therapy website states that in the 1980s researchers found that while 90% of Venezuelan Indians living in the rain forest had parasites but no allergies, only 10% of Venezuelans living in cities had light parasitic infections and 43% had allergies. They correlated the absence of worms with the emergence of asthma and allergies in that region. Later, Joel Weinstock at the University of Iowa elevated the theory to the clinical level when he treated seven patients suffering from ulcerative colitis and Crohn's Disease with pig whipworm, Trichurus suis. These patients had been non responsive to traditional therapy. More than 70% of the initial patients reported improvement. More than 70% of the initial patients reported improvement. The review also mentions the work of researchers in Nottingham have been working with human hookworm in asthma patients, and scientists that in Argentina have published studies claiming that parasitic infection may decrease the symptoms of MS.
The Worm Therapy website offers for sale larva of the human hookworm and and ova of the human whipworm. Their homepage states that “small doses of intestinal worms may be effective in the treatment of asthma, allergies, and some autoimmune conditions.” It is important to point out that this information was obtained from a product website, and cannot be expected to be entirely unbiased in its presentation of parasites as a form of human therapy. Also, this research is still in very early stages, and this Discovery Guide is by no means advocating that readers self-medicate with parasitic infections for allergy relief.

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