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Health & science

It's a microbe's life

No matter how much we sanitize, purify and cleanse, the truth remains: Fungus is among us.

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Published 4/7/1999

Something’s changed in America, some definite shift in the air. I first noticed it recently when, barely off the plane from Paris at LAX, a friend took me aside and gave me a tiny bottle of Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer.

"Best thing since sliced bread," she gushed.

The packet promised to "kill 99.9 percent of the germs that cause diseases," which raises the question why it isn’t being airdropped into Third World countries.

But OK, I thought. No more sticky grime on my son’s hands for lack of a bathroom. I thought the idea was nifty until I noticed my son, who hasn’t kicked the habit of sucking index and middle finger, grimace after tasting his freshly sanitized digits.

Reading the fine print on the Purell packet made me wonder which was worse: isopropyl myristate ("Flammable! Discontinue use if irritation and redness develops. If conditions persist ... call a doctor") or the grubby results of his half-eaten apple.

Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer would have vanished into that part of my brain (larger than I’d care to admit) reserved for inconsequential and time-wasting consumer product tests if I hadn’t noticed a spectacular array of new antibacterial soaps, scrubs, sprays, powders, wipes, lotions and swabs on the market.

These products promise to sanitize, sterilize, antisepticize, purify, decontaminate. What happened to soap?

There seems to be no escaping imminent and omnipresent public health threats. We’re warned by public service announcements that even those things designed to kill microbes can kill us. (Last summer, garbage trucks in Los Angeles featured posters of a child’s hand reaching for a stray ball with a caption that read: "Ball? Pesticides? Both?")

We grapple with big words that sound like Swedish stereo components or botanical biomass. Acinetocacter iwoffi. Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Stenotrophomonas maltophilia.

We’re urged to instantly purify our table water with portable ultraviolet water purifier wands called "Steri-pens."

Even the innocuous peach, its fuzz blooming in velvet tufts, is dangerous. My friends have a large bottle of "Fruit and Vegetable Wash" next to their ceramic fruit bowl. "Bacteria can be transferred to fruits and vegetables merely from human handling," it warns.

Cleanliness may be close to godliness, but never has its price seemed as high as it does today when fear of microbes, invigorated by a deep national passion for hygiene and a taste for cataclysms (preferably on a planetary scale), has reached an all-time apex and a commercial saturation point.

Everything, it seems, is vulnerable: Our babies, lawns, fruit, cars, dogs, meals, phones, water. Even our computers get viruses.

We’re so obsessed with them that they’ve become Hollywood celebrities. Dustin Hoffman fought them in the 1995 film Outbreak. In the recent film Virus, Jamie Lee Curtis has it out with a mutating alien life form that must destroy the only threat to its existence: a virus called man.

Listen to prime-time news and you might reconsider the merits of living in the Mir space station: Listeria in your pastrami. E. coli in your public pool. Salmonella chickens. Mad cows. National meat recalls. There seems no end to it.

We are stalked by bacterial beasts, driving at top speed down microbial superhighways. We are one nation, under siege, indivisible.

With help from (who else?) Lysol and the National Institutes for Health, Pfizer fans the flames with a Microbe Exhibit, held recently at Los Angeles’ cavernous Museum of Natural History. The exhibit leads us through a universe of plagues, protozoa and pathogens, a veritable microbial zoo filled with replicas of gigantically magnified larval bacteriophage, didinum and cholera bacteria, their spores and flagellum exquisitely wrought in infectious Day-Glo.

These things, that look like deranged notepad doodles the size of Volkswagens, slay our children and decimate populations. China in the 10th century. France in the 15th century. Mexico in the 16th century.

We descend into papier-mâché catacombs, read about bubonic nightmares ("Ashes, ashes, we all fall down").

We pass an iron lung and revisit a cold, sinister totem of our recent past, a symbol of tubercular childhoods and leg braces, of polio and crippled dreams.

But these are good times, Pfizer reminds us, and for the most part, the drug company is right. I grew up in the ’60s, when vaccines, iodine and antibiotics were staples of childhood, generously distributed from every black bag.

Like Teflon, Tupperware and TV dinners, personal hygiene products came around to provide additional relief from the smelly, hazardous business of life.

It seemed as if there was nothing the ebullient goodwill of technology and medicine couldn’t cure, which is perhaps why I’ve never been particularly microphobic. I’ve shared toothbrushes on occasion, and eaten food cooked in substandard kitchens in Africa. I sometimes forget to wash my son’s hands before meals ("Your hands can be way stations for staph, E. coli, salmonella and other diseases," warns the voice in the Microbe Exhibit’s virtual viral kitchen. "Every time you wipe your nose, bite your nails or use the bathroom you transport microbes. Wash often with soap.")

While I’m the first to extol the virtues of antibiotics on an ear infection or chlorine in public pools, as a parent I’d rather, say, use lavender oil and a good haircut to combat head lice (something 5 million children get, irrespective of country or class) than organophosphate malathion, a common ingredient in over-the-counter treatments that has been linked to nerve damage and birth defects.

Microbes are, in fact, like characters in a comic book. There are good guys and bad guys ("Amazing Allies!" "Invisible Invaders!").

But not long after the surgeon general announced the imminent end of infectious diseases in the ’60s, these distinctions began to blur. Microbes did something they weren’t supposed to do: They evolved into resistant forms, in part because of our appetite for antibiotics.

Also complicating the picture was a host of new plagues, sending ripples of panic in the collective microbial pool. But the bug that caused AIDS or Ebola is not the same one that causes bad breath or funky fruit.

Conversely, the bacteria on your apple or the errant bacterium basking on your car seat is not likely to cause bubonic plague.

What separates this chasm is a vast gray zone where marketers of domestic hygiene products prey, like so many parasites, on the excesses of our national paranoia.

There’s nothing new about this. Exhorted to douche with Lysol and "dislodge bacterial life" with products such as "The Marvel," women were early targets back in the ’20s.

"Read the virile and forceful facts on feminine hygiene," the Marvel’s ads of the time told women. "Medical science does womanhood an incalculable service when it points out with forceful candor that many of the ailments peculiar to her are primarily due to one thing uncleanliness. Science has proved more effective means for the preservation of internal cleanliness and health."

Medical science prowled its way into women’s genitalia, urging them to abandon "old practices" (in most cases a mix of baking soda and water) in favor of the germicides of the future. For many women, "vaginal irrigation" went straight to the head. Today, thankfully, we’ve reclaimed our vaginas from the ravages of products such as Lysol, though we continue to douche, disinfect and deodorize as if our life depended on it.

Leave it to Americans, whose nation’s destiny is bound up in the conquest of nature, to sell products that purge the nature out of nature.

In some cases, as with the Odwalla Juice Company’s decision to pasteurize several of their products after a batch of contaminated juice led to the death of a toddler, it’s a rational move, a sobering reminder of nature’s invincible power.

But more often than not, it’s part of the American tradition of grazing on our fears and leveraging our phobias into cash cows.

The French have found more virtuous ways of dealing with microorganisms. Imagine French life without microbes! Without the outrageous variety of cheese, bread and wine that remain the Republic’s lasting glories!

Ask anyone in a French supermarket for antibacterial soaps and they’ll refer you to a pathologist. Requests for swim diapers will result in similar confusion.

People there live in smaller, microbe-friendly spaces. They greet one another, exchanging microbes, with not one but two, and sometimes four, kisses. Put any piece of world-class French cheese under a microscope and you’ll see a rave party. (This may explain why cheese that smells so bad can taste so good.)

"She’s not wearing gloves," one visiting American friend exclaimed as our fromagiere cut Camembert and chevre, laying the thick white triangles on the scale with her bare exposed hands. That was way too much mere human handling for one American.

When I showed my neighbor, a clinical microbiologist, my Purell Hand Sanitizer, she retorted: "Too much soap is a bad thing. The biochemical microflora that lives on our skin also protects it. Why do Americans want to remove their biochemical microflora?"

Listening to her wax poetic over microflora reminded me that Louis Pasteur (whose name became the very process that makes American food edible for Americans and inedible for the French) not only revolutionized the world with vaccines for rabies, cholera and anthrax; he also helped save France’s (and the world’s) beer and wine industries. Today, there is a pharmacy and a wine shop on virtually every corner in France.

Three hundred years ago a Dutch merchant inadvertently discovered microbes when he put a piece of his teeth scrapings under a microscope and noticed "little animacules." A bit of dental hygiene might have gone a long way with our Dutch merchant, but not for long: Those "animacules" would have kept coming back.

At any given time, on any square inch of our bodies, approximately 10,000 bacteria are having lunch. That’s every square inch. Simple arithmetic will tell you that that’s a lot of microbial life for those little packets of Nice ’n’ Clean Moist Antibacterial Towelettes.

The fact is, fungus is among us. Without bacterial life (also found on Mars, we’re told), entire ecosystems would collapse. Life as we know it would not exist. We would not exist. For it is the very stuff of life itself. And life must, and does, go on.

This article originally appeared in Salon Magazine, an online magazine at www.salonmagazine.com.

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