If cleanliness is next to godliness, God has a lot to answer for. That’s what I’ve decided after spending a lot of time hanging around in public restrooms.
You’ve probably heard about how we might be becoming too clean in the United States. Some researchers think the rise in the number of kids suffering from allergies and asthma might be because they aren’t exposed to the sorts of irritants that would allow their immune systems to develop robustly. It’s called the hygiene hypothesis.
Mark Holbreich, a board certified allergist in Indianapolis, studied the Amish, comparing their rates of various ailments to those of more typical Americans.
“The Amish basically live as if it were 1860,” Holbreich told me. “They’re very clean. They have indoor plumbing. Their houses are immaculate. Their children get vaccinated, but they spend time — and their mothers spend time when pregnant — in the barn around all kinds of things: cow manure, food for the animals . . .”
In other words, these aren’t the kind of people who go everywhere with a bottle of Purell in each pocket. For whatever reason, the Amish have a very low rate of asthma and allergies when compared with the rest of the population.
Not that things were necessarily better in the 19th century. “Look at what it was like in 1860: people dying from dysentery, typhoid fever, diphtheria, polio, measles,” Holbreich said. “The upside is, through hygiene, better public sanitation and immunization, we’ve essentially eliminated the major killers of the 1860s, which were infections. The trade-off is, yes, maybe by having a cleaner environment and fewer infections, we’ve brought on more allergies.”
Please note that Holbreich is not saying that parents shouldn’t immunize their children. They should. The Amish do. He just wonders what exactly it is about the Amish lifestyle that translates into fewer allergies and whether it’s replicable for more modern Americans, short of keeping a cow in our living rooms.
But you are no doubt wondering about my research. It is based on careful observation in men’s rooms over the past 30 years. Back in the 1980s a typical restroom had, in addition to toilets and urinals, a sink or two, some soap and a towel.
At the low end, the soap may have been a scary-looking, grayish slab of Lava resting on the sink’s cracked rim. The towel may have been one of those continuous roller things that you pulled down on, exposing what you prayed was a clean section of fabric but suspected was just a bit someone had used before you that was finally rotating back around.
And yet, it got the job done.
Then certain pantywaists among us decided that the real problem with the public restroom was the doorknob you touched on the way out. About 15 years ago, I noticed the floors of restrooms starting to become mysteriously littered with paper towels just near the exits. Men (and I assume women) had decided that it was safer to open the door with a paper towel and then scoot out, even if that meant leaving a mess behind.
At The Washington Post, janitors started positioning a trash can near the door, so these germophobes could at least toss their waste in a bin.
And now it’s come to this: Not long ago, I was in the restroom of a fancy office building. In addition to a trash can on the floor near the door, there was a wall-mounted dispenser full of squares of paper towel. These towels were too small to dry your hands with and existed only to use in grasping the door handle. This was a sanitary door-opening system.
My God, people, are you that afraid of bacteria? What’s next in the anti-infection arms race? Disposable gloves that you put on after washing your hands, then remove and dispose of in an incinerator after leaving the bathroom? A Barbicide emergency shower and eyewash station?
Surely, a little bacteria’s good for you!
I had hoped Holbreich would back me up. But he pointed out that I was conflating things.
“Have those behaviors affected the prevalence of allergic disease?” he asked. “The answer is no.”
Allergic disease has been on the rise for 75 years, since long before our national wussification.
“The premise that our bathrooms are too clean, that we wash too often, that we use hand sanitizer, that’s not going to explain everything,” he said.
I will continue to wash my hands in public restrooms. And I will continue to bravely grasp the door handle with my bare hand.
Dirt might be good for you. And you know where you can find lots of dirt? In the country, which, appropriately enough, is where Camp Moss Hollow is. That’s the Fauquier County summer camp for at-risk kids from the Washington area that’s supported by readers of The Post.
Help a city kid get dirty. Go to washingtonpost.com/camp and click where it says, “Give Now.” Or send a check, made payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Send a Kid to Camp, Family Matters of Greater Washington, P.O. Box 200045, Pittsburgh, PA 15251-0045.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.