Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hand Sanitizers Are Killing You

Maybe you've spent a little time reading some of the copy on product labels.  For an example, some rodenticides tout how they're effective against warfarin-resistant rats, for instance.  You see stories in the papers - or if you're like half of America, on Google News - about the latest outbreak of MRSA or MRTB.

We create these things ourselves.  Warfarin-resistant rats are rats that have bred to become resistant to the anticoagulant drug Warfarin.  I mean, really resistant.  These rats can munch down entire blocks of poison bait, a dose suitable to kill an adult human, and shrug it off.  An ordinary rat practically melts inside after eating this stuff, but the resistant strains don't respond.  Somewhere in the past a few nibbled at the poison, got sick but didn't die, and reproduced.  Lather, rinse, repeat through successive generations until you have a rat that cannot be killed by the most popular rat bait on the market.

Typical human response: use a different poison.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  In a few more generations, rats will be resistant to that, too.

Let me point out, no rat has yet evolved that can resist a quick sharp rap over the head.  The challenge is to build a better mousetrap, but frankly they don't get better.  It's quick, inexpensive, and effective.

Back to the point!  Then there's multidrug resistant staph (MRSA), resistant tuberculosis (MRTB), and assorted others.  How many of these did you help generate?

Yes, you.  Human fixation with hygiene has brought about things like nasty infections that are increasingly hard to kill.  Combine that with occasional human lapses of attention or rigor and boom, the infectious agent gets a chance to regain its strength.  You've got a runaway illness.  Same as your immune system learns an invader and how to kill it, the invader can learn your defenses - by reproducing those strains that can defeat it - and get around them.  If you don't keep the pressure on until the entire illness is done, you're just accelerating the process.

It's become very trendy to do the half-measures.  Antibacterial products are legion all over the American retail landscape: sanitizers, dishwashing liquid, hand soap, sprays.  Treated linens, antibacterial infused hard surfaces, like on the high chairs at the restaurants.  It might work at killing whatever bugs are out there when the product is produced, but then what?  What happens after that?  Microorganisms life spans are measured in hours, there can be several generations of evolution taking place every day.  So if you don't kill every single one of the bad microorganisms, bad things happen.

So about those hand sanitizers.  Look carefully at the labeling.  It doesn't say it kills 100% of all the germs on your hands, no.  It says it kills 99%.  And 99% is pretty good, no mistake, that leaves just one percent of everything on your skin still alive, good germs and bad alike.  But what about that one percent?

That one percent just shrugged off a chemical attack.  Survived it.  So now when those germs reproduce, they're going to be that much more likely to shrug off the next chemical attack.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

Repeat each and every time you use a hand sanitizer.  Shake hands with someone, pass those resistant bugs along.  Touch a doorknob.  Touch the steering wheel.

Touch your face.  Inhale, lick your lips.  Now the resistant bugs are inside you.  Are they good germs or bad ones?  They don't carry little flags declaring their allegiance, so there's no way to know.  You just have to wait and wonder.

The vast majority of what's out there can't really hurt you.  If it could, you wouldn't have made it to the age you are now.  The human body's immune system is far more active and effective than you can even imagine.  But why help train the enemy?  Who needs to deliberately expose themselves to germs that have been carefully selected for resistance to chemical controls?

Not only that, but why would you deliberately weaken your body's immune response to such things?  Consider polio.

Here's where I step out on a limb.  I have a theory, but no proof.  Polio used to be a bad thing that happened to people, but it wasn't a big thing that people worried about.  You worried about it, but you didn't have it looming like communism or fifth period chemistry.  It was an environmental worry, like cars in the street.

Then around 1880 polio came on strong.  What happened?  I think a big shift in human behavior happened.  Hygiene became something you did because you had clothes that were nice.  Doctors on the battlefield of the Civil War had discovered that wounds infested with fly maggots didn't turn gangrenous like wounds that were covered up - flies were eating the dead tissue before it could rot.  Keeping things clean was better for humans.  And of course, the technology moved past the icky stage of fly maggots pretty quickly.  So soap and scrubbing and washing clothes all became really big.

Move up a few decades and other things happened.  Public pools became popular so there's all these people swimming and splashing in the same water, some not as clean as others, children playfully spitting water at each other.  It's not hard to see how it's a pretty busy place, communicable diseases-wise.  But that wasn't the real root of the epidemics in my opinion.  I think it has more to do with fastidiously clean hands, bathing, and baby formula.

Effective baby formulas were coming on at about this time, around the 30s or so.  The importance of handwashing was being spread far and wide, so that was picking up in popularity.  Up until this point you might be exposed to little doses of polio all through childhood.  Sometimes the worst that would happen would be a bad headache for a few days, a fever.  If you'd been exposed to assorted weaker strains of polio earlier in life, you were already somewhat immunized against the later versions and could probably shake them off.  If you were breastfed as an infant your mother passed her developed immunities to you through the milk.  But now with formula and handwashing and everything so spotlessly, modernly clean, maybe you haven't been exposed at all.  Maybe you have no immunity to draw on.  Boom, you've got polio.  It might be pretty bad.

Does this mean I think we shouldn't be vaccinating people?  No.  No way.  Vaccinations like for polio hold up a picture in front of your body's immune system, a color photo from three angles, of the germs your body should kill.  "This is what the bad guy looks like," the vaccination says to your immune system.  "If you see him, kill him."  It doesn't weaken you at all.  It puts you on your guard.

But hand sanitizers take down the bulletin boards where the photos are posted.  No exposure, no familiarity, no reaction from your white cells until it's too late.  Then reacting requires soaking your body with antibiotics, antivirals.  Closing the henhouse door after the weasel's already inside.

Skip the hand sanitizer.  It isn't helping you.  I mean, it is in the moment, but not down the road.  Plain old hand washing works every bit as well, and doesn't dry out your skin.

1 comment:

  1. And hand sanitizers strip of the oil on your skin that is a natural barrier to many germs! Use soap and water then use lotion.
    And let the kids play in the dirt when they are young. It won't hurt them to get those thrift store clothes dirty and eat a few mud pies. You survived it and they will too.
    Besides, we don't need a whole generation of people who are too prissy to plant a tomato plant or too 'allergic to their own sweat' to mow the grass.
    Be bold! Be brave! Get dirty!
    Be healthy.