There is a television advertisement aired in South Africa periodically that I find particularly irritating. In it a young mother, baby in arms, walks around her kitchen spraying an aerosol into the air, to a verbal and written promise that the product in question “Kills germs dead!”
Besides massacring the English language, the premise that a common household spray can sterilise an environment of bacteria is frankly misleading. Also misleading is the suggestion that we should be sterilising our environment to protect our families. The opposite may well be true. Killing bacteria indiscriminately is doing us more harm than good.
The “hygiene hypothesis” was proposed by a Scottish epidemiologist, David Strachan, in 1989. It states in simple terms that humans need exposure to common bacteria to strengthen our immune systems at an early age, and that vaccination, antibiotics and antiseptics have altered the human immune system to a state that is more prone to immune system disorders like allergies and asthma, particularly in later life. The incidence of the latter is rising at an alarming rate, and seems to be more prevalent in communities where extensive, and perhaps overenthusiastic, hygiene measures are taken.
Recent studies suggest that this hypothesis may well be true. The group Women’s Voices for the Earth is one organisation that has taken up the cause, promoting greater awareness of anything marketed with antibacterial and hygiene-related purposes, especially those used in feminine hygiene and general household products.
It is no coincidence that as soon as babies can crawl they start putting anything within reach into their mouths, much to their mothers’ dismay. In this way, a baby gains wide exposure to normal bacterial populations. Random and excessive use of antiseptics and antibiotics, and maternal anxiety, would do little other than to encourage populations of stronger, more resistant and potentially harmful bacteria, and inhibit this healthy population of bacteria that is so vital to our health. In addition the chemicals used in commercial household disinfectants may themselves be toxic and accumulate in our bodies to our detriment.
No one is suggesting that we abandon normal common-sense hygiene, like washing our hands and food. But antibacterial and antiseptic product managers have cottoned onto clever marketing strategies, suggesting that our homes carry hidden dangers that good parents need to heed and eradicate to protect their children. The risk is heavily overstated, and the products themselves may be doing more harm than good.
There is no doubt that disease-causing bacteria are winning the war against us by becoming more resistant to both chemical and antibiotic measures. But these are still relatively rare in the home environment for the moment.
In this war, irresponsible marketing by manufacturers that plays upon the public’s fears is something we can ill-afford — yet another case of profit motive trumping public responsibility.