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I will start this commend by stipulating that while I am no microbiologist, the intent of this article is likely correct, but like many scientists, the authors are so involved in their specialty that they miss the bigger picture. Said another way, they missed the forest for all the trees (germs in this case).
Humans have evolved to live immersed in a world of bacteria, viruses, fungi, molds, and other so-called germs. In fact, we can not live without them. It is, for example, well known there are more cells of bacteria in and on the human body than there are human cells (The bacteria cells are much smaller). These bacteria help us digest food. They provide the coating that seals the lining of our intestines and provide part of the covering we call skin.
In the environment, germs are everywhere. They can be found floating in the air, in the dirt, where they help plants thrive, and on the floors and tables. There is scarcely a place that is free from germs.
As noted in the article, some of these germs can and do cause illnesses. Take, for example, the “dangerous” E. coli species of bacteria. While the article describes extreme methods to avoid E. coli, it fails to mention that nearly all of us have an infestation of E. coli in our intestines. E. coli helps provide us with vitamin B12 and iron, among other nutrients. We would die without E. coli. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4373459/)
So what keeps the E.coli and other germs from killing us all? Our immune system. Our innate immune system starts in our intestines with a large collection of germs, all living in a symbiotic relationship with us humans. So long as the balance is maintained, everyone is happy. it is when the balance is disturbed that we get sick.
Next up the chain is our adaptive immune system. It learns from exposure to disease-causing germs and retains that memory so the next time that germ is encountered, it is quickly eliminated from the body. This brings me to the question of how the adaptive immune system learns.
It learns from limited exposure to the germs it needs to learn about. Where do these germs come from? They come from the environment. Starting with an initial load from the mother’s birth canal upon delivery. Later, the child kisses the dog, and even later, older people go to a picnic. All these things expose our immune systems to small amounts of various pathogens so our immune system can be trained to eliminate the excess ones from our body. Failure to train the immune system is one of the reasons that children raised in the city are frequently less healthy than those raised on a farm (1),
This leads me to conclude the extreme curtailment of pleasurable activities listed in this article is simultaneously a fool’s errand and bad for human health. Eliminating all germs is not possible, and even if possible, it would not be advisable.
Please don’t read more into this message than what was intended. I am greatly in favor of reasonable efforts toward cleanliness. Washing your hands after working in the garden. Keeping a separate cutting board for raw meat and salads. Wiping the tables in a restaurant between customers. Covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Staying home when you are sick are a few reasonable efforts to make, but avoiding picnics, and throwing out food because it is one day out of date is foolish and wasteful. It causes you to miss an opportunity to train your immune system and miss out on some of life’s enjoyable experiences.
I will close with two comments. 1 – I have discussed this with people who provide food service for a living, and they follow the suggestions in this article to the letter and beyond. When I asked why, they told me they would be financially liable if anyone got sick, so they take extreme measures to prevent being accused of negligence in a court of law.
2 – Packaged food dates are primarily related to food taste and manufacturer’s profits, not to product safety. Read this FDA report for further information.
(1) – This is known as the Hygiene hypothesis. Here are two articles for further reading. The first is a lay article from NPR entitled “Why Getting Grimy as A Child Can Make For A Healthier Life,” and the second is a detailed look at the various aspects of this activity entitled “The Hygiene Hypothesis and New Perspectives—Current Challenges Meeting an Old Postulate.”
Great counterpoints, Jerry Segers.
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