Features & Stories
HOW CLEAN IS TOO CLEAN?


Story and photo of hand sanitizer by Trudy Frisk
Photo of Vicky White with Blaze and Comet courtesy of Vicky White

Vicky White with Blaze and Comet
How clean is too clean?  There are some easy tests.  If youíre swabbing your horsesí noses with disinfectant wipes before allowing them to search your pockets for carrots;
if youíre spraying your chickens with hand sanitizer; if youíre insisting the dogs canít enter the house till they wipe all four feet on a door-mat; youíre over the dividing line.
Past safety, into obsession.

Now, Iím certainly not a germís best friend.  Like you, I want to halt the spread of super-bugs, to leave a hospital healthier than I went in. I donít want to experience a public place as the modern equivalent of a plague ship.  In the Middle Ages, people fearing disease could do no more than hold bouquets to their noses to screen putrid smells.  Weíve come further than that, and itís a good thing.

Have we gone just a wee bit too far?  Hand sanitizers are everywhere.  Newspapers and television offer comprehensive directions on hand washing. Most homeowners expect guests to remove their shoes at the door as though they were entering a religious sanctuary.  This can have embarrassing complications, depending on the condition of the guestís socks. When was the last time you saw a back-yard sand-box or heard parents encouraging children to go outside and make mud pies or play trucks in the dirt?

ďBetter sitting in the climate controlled atmosphere inside, working on the computer, than outside subject to  sun, rain, dust, pollen, clouds, heat, cold, bugs, vegetation, and animals, (wild or domestic).Ē, reason many parents.

That might work in a city, with a balcony planter of geraniums.  Itís not possible on a ranch or farm. Whether itís calves or carrots, the agricultural life-style demands hands-on attention.  Outside, for the most part, is where itís done.  This means being exposed to all those forces of uncontrolled, mostly unsanitized, nature. How can birth, branding, castration, and eventual slaughter be made totally sanitary?  They canít, of course. Ranching and farming can be kept as clean as possible, but acceptance of the more messy parts of the life cycle underlies agriculture, and always has.

Itís different, of course, for giant agri-business firms where much of the production process is automated. Not so for a family ranch or farm. Family and ranch hands herding stock on ATVs are about as automatic as it gets. Animals, to them, arenít just a product;
theyíre living creatures with whims and habits. Farmers are familiar with weather, soil, weeds, companion crops; the variables that make a successful harvest.

This knowledge is being lost in an increasingly urban population, which doesnít realize steak doesnít begin on a tray in the meat department, milk isnít naturally deposited in jugs, and hens, (what are hens?), donít lay clean eggs directly into cartons.

Fortunately agricultural producers are forging strong bonds with urban customers. Ranchers and farmers can sell their products directly to consumers, through personal orders or farmerís markets. Knowledgeable butcher shops and supermarkets make a point of carrying local produce.  Restaurants form partnerships with regional producers, guaranteeing their diners tasty food which also supports the local economy.  These programs attract concerned consumers who are very aware of how and where the food was produced.          
 
Iíve spent my share of time trying to reason with laying hens, not one of whom wanted to surrender any of the six eggs she was sitting on. Iíve repeatedly pushed an abandoned calfís head into a bucket till it realized that white fluid was milk, and it tasted good. We also ran a market garden. Donít get me started on carrots and other crops. Planting, weeding, tilling, harvesting, usually under a scorching sun. Of course there were benefits.  Our eggs couldnít have been fresher. We separated our milk and churned our own butter.
We sold extra eggs and dairy products. When cleaning and bundling vegetables for sale, we munched some of them ourselves, nothing was more delicious.  We knew how these products were raised and, just as importantly, so did the villagers who bought them from us. There might have been a speck of dirt on the radishes, but no one expected otherwise.

Hand Sanitizer
According to new studies that dirt may have given us protection against some medical problems as adults. Researchers suspect some auto-immune problems may be linked to the prevalence of antibiotics and anti-bacterials in the developed world.  ďThis reduces childrenís exposure to microbes.Ē commented Dennis Kasper, a micro-biologist at Harvard Medical School, in an article in Nature, March 2012.  ďWe as a species are not exposed to the same germs that we were exposed to in the past. ďcontinued Kasper.  ďEarly exposure to germs has lasting benefits.  It strengthens the immune system, and can reduce the bodyís inventory of Ö..cells which can turn on the body causing a range of disorders such as asthma or inflammatory bowel disease. ď

Kasper, co-author of the study, believes his group has discovered the mechanism by which the body reduces those cells. 

So, should we push our children outside to make mud pies and play in the dirt?  Depends on that dirtís location.  An inner-city lot saturated with heavy metals: not so good.  A rural yard full of earth-worms, beetles, and passing lady-bugs; sure, go for it. When the children come in from playing, wash, donít sanitize, them. After all, as our anti-bacterials get tougher, so do the germs, and they evolve way faster than we do.

Remember, nature is not our enemy, most bugs are good bugs, and, if you can eat off your floor, itís far too clean.


Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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