Update to this post: Four days after I posted this story on my blog, NBC Nightly News reported the following story on Tuesday, October 9, 2012. Does this make it seem I’m ahead of the curve, or what?

Is it possible to be too clean? Researchers say yes.

Here’s my original post of October 5:

Is sanitary living overrated? Has the number of bottles of hand sanitizers surpassed the number of soap dispensers in most homes in the Western world? Do people on the go use hand sanitizers more often than they use their smartphones? Can people no longer touch the handle of a shopping cart without first pulling a sanitizer sheet from a nearby dispenser and wiping it down?

What accounts for the dramatic jump in the number of crumpled paper towels thrown on the floor of men’s rooms as they exit them by pulling the door handle with the crumpled towel? Is the same thing happening in women’s rooms? (I don’t know.) Can people no longer shake hands without curling their upper lips in repulsion at the number of germs just transmitted by the human touch?

Then there’s this paradox: The age of sanitary living seems to have had no effect on the number of dog owners who will let their dogs lick them on the mouth and face, knowing that the dog’s mouth and tongue have been in some unsavory—or really savory—places. That’s disgusting, but I digress.

My darling daughter Joy triggered this little essay when she and her husband Luke had us hold some 7-day-old fuzzy baby chickens this past Sunday. I announced in a previous post that those chickens were waiting in an incubator to hatch under Luke’s watchful eye as he placed finishing touches on an impressive backyard chicken coop.

Baby chicks getting their bearings.

Baby chicks getting their bearings. [Photo credit]


Both Ellen and I held these cheeping chicks in our hands. The other nine baby chicks scurried in the brooder among the feeder, the waterer, and the warmth of a heat lamp.

After we lowered the baby chicks back into their brooder, Joy said in a clearly directive voice, “Don’t touch anything—go wash your hands!” When I asked why she was in such a rush for us to wash our hands, she and Luke said things like “salmonella,” “germs,” and “dirty.”

It was true that those baby chicks were in a brooder in which their feces were on the floor. Logic dictates that bits of baby chicken feces were on our hands after handling them. Joy and Luke had a good point.

Here’s another paradox: Why was I unconcerned about chicken feces on my hands while I earlier expressed concern about dog owners allowing their dogs to lick them in the face? Got myself there, didn’t I? This isn’t the first time I have lost an argument with myself. But now that I’m into this, I must slog on.

An Explanation

Readers of some of my other posts know that I grew up on a Tennessee farm. My family raised chickens, cattle, and hogs. We had a dog and a lot of cats. We had varmints, rodents, snakes, and bullfrogs. We had giant green caterpillars as big as our index fingers that chewed on our tobacco plants until we pulled them off with our bare hands and killed them on the ground with a stomp. We hunted small game, mostly squirrels, but sometimes rabbits and quail. Handling live and dead animals was as normal as weeding the garden, plowing the corn, and cutting hay.

We hauled countless loads of manure from all those domestic farm animals and spread them on our pastures and cropland, producing more food. This is a beautiful example of symbiosis, a system where the parts support the whole. You may say that some of that manure made it into creeks and rivers, then eventually to the Gulf of Mexico. And that’s true. Some of you who may say that might also apply animal manure around your gardens and landscape plants. Heavy rains at your place may take some of that manure to creeks, rivers, and oceans.

The part of Tennessee where I grew up is hilly and, as I look back, beautiful. Limestone is the base underlying the soil. Many springs ooze out from the limestone, emitting some of the finest naturally filtered drinking water in the world. We often hunted squirrels on remote woodland that sometimes had springs in the hollows, or hollers. Whenever we walked up to one of these springs, we almost automatically knelt down to get a drink of water. Often we would find an old water dipper or tin can that someone left for those of us who followed. Without a thought we took whatever utensil was left by the spring, rinsed it out, and drank from it. If none was available, we rinsed our hands downstream and then drank the cold spring water from our cupped hands. Of course, animals drank from those springs too.

It was a different world and time. We were healthy, hale, and hearty as a family, and so were our relatives and neighbors. Sanitation consisted of washing our hands with soap and water before meals. When we took food to the fields, sanitation consisted of brushing our hands off on our pants and shirts before eating.


So my point is that today’s modern obsession with sanitation may be reaching a level that’s beyond the needs of normal human life. We hear credible news reports of escalating childhood allergies and asthma. A World Health Organization study released in 2007 found the prevalence of both rising among European childrenSimilar studies have been released in the United States, Asia, and other parts of the world, with numerous explanations of causes such as airborne contaminants and germs on pacifiers.  Are we weakening our natural immune defenses with increasingly obsessive sanitation?

Adults–medical personnel, and parents as examples–have made kids afraid to interact with the world they live in because of invisible “dangers.” Sanitation and disease transmission are legitimate public health concerns, to be sure. But have the invisible dangers become so ingrained in our psyches that children are over-protected from normal life? Are adults shielding themselves from normal life?

If those baby chickens are so unsanitary, so filthy, how do they survive long enough to produce eggs? How did my older brother Nolen Robert and I survive to adulthood with normal good health?

Still, I have become a compulsive handwasher in my daily living. Ellen points this out from time to time, and I usually reply that I have a lot of dirty jobs around the house.

What would happen if we pause, take some time to reflect, and decide that unsanitary living may not be so bad?