Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Cleanliness is Next to OCD

Maybe I've been in Europe too long, but I don't understand the Stateside obsession with germs. Kids in the States bring tubes of hand sanitizer to school with them. Even mothers carry hand sanitizer with them. I've been told to use hand sanitizer before holding a friend's baby. Having clean hands wasn't good enough for that particular person. Toys must be sterilized between children handling them. Playing in the dirt seems to be verboten these days because dirt has germs. The same goes for playing outside because there are insects, which could carry disease. Stores now have special disinfectant wipes for cleaning off shopping cart handles. Antibacterial soaps are the norm everywhere. Heaven forbid if something drops on the ground. It must be boiled to ensure that it's sterilized.

There was a recent article on the Free Range Kids website about a preschool where the kids must wash their hands after getting out of the sandbox if they want to play with a ball or ride a bike. Their cubbies must also be sterilized if the kids put their jackets into them before washing their hands. Here is the link:
http://freerangekids.wordpress.com/2011/03/11/obsessive-compulsive-pre-k-disorder/  It seems like this school is trying to give these young children obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or at least severe skin problems, with all of the hand washing that they must do. I can't imagine how the teachers could keep track of which kids were doing which activities and if they washed their hands or not.

There are times when a lot of hand washing is appropriate. For example, I want the surgeon who's operating on me to have washed his hands with antibacterial soap. My family doctor should wash his hands between patients. The chef who's cooking my restaurant meals should have clean hands. But a child washing his hands after touching a toy in the sandbox strikes me as being over the top. I couldn't imagine how that could work in a typical German preschool situation, where the kids are outside for a good part of the day. Kids move from the sandbox to other areas, then back to the sandbox again. Those poor kids would have raw, chapped hands by the end of the day if they were required to wash their hands between activities. If I were a preschool teacher, I would have the kids wash their hands after using the toilet, before snack or lunch time, and if they had glue or other sticky stuff on their hands after doing an art project. Also, sterilizing a cubby because a child touched it with dirty hands is too much. As the person who sent in the article said, kids are touching dirty jackets with clean hands, which makes the hand washing pointless (unless the kids wash their hands again after putting their jackets into their cubbies).

My teachers would have had a field day with me if I was in school now. I was notorious for chewing on my pens. If I was sent to wash my hands after handling a pen that I had chewed on, I would have washed away my outer layer of skin. It's a good thing they didn't have hand sanitizers back in those days because I would have developed severe eczema from using it. I also had friends who chewed on their pens. If my pen ran out of ink, I'd borrow a pen that a friend had chewed on.  Somehow my friends and I survived.

The paranoia about germs in the States is also having an unintended effect: breeding resistant bacteria. Antibacterial cleansers are justified in a hospital or doctor's office, where patients have a lowered resistance to infection and bacteria needs to be killed. But home use of antibacterial soaps and cleansers, and overuse of hand sanitizers, does not kill all of the bacteria on a surface. The surviving bacteria then pass on their genes for resistance to the next generation. Within a short period of time, all of the bacteria become resistant to the antibacterial soap. Antibacterial soaps may also kill off good bacteria that keeps harmful germs in check.

It seems like the germophobes in the States don't realize that our bodies are full of bacteria. We have harmful bacteria in our throats, lungs, digestive tracts, and on our skin. Bacteria also play an important role in digestion. What keeps the harmful bacteria from making us constantly sick is the good bacteria in our bodies. I wonder what some of the people who are into sterilizing their environment would think if they knew that their bodies were full of germs.

When I was growing up, and I got dirty, my mother always told me that there were two things called soap and water that would get rid of dirt. They worked very well. I wonder if this generation of kids growing up with germ phobic parents will be afraid to venture out into the world because they think that everything around them is contaminated. Will they develop OCD because of the constant hand washing or use of hand sanitizers? Will there be even more problems with resistant bacteria because of the overuse of hand sanitizers? Only time will tell. I think I'd rather stay in Europe where kids can get dirty and people aren't so paranoid about germs.

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