Purely a figment of your imagination

What amuses, annoys, concerns or otherwise interests me – Noodlemaz

Germ Warfare

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Yesterday the lovely Mr Levey of my university’s press dept shared this link on Twitter:

Kettle handles dirtier than keyboards! Who’s for a nice cuppa? http://bit.ly/cHBOTg (mail) | http://bit.ly/b9IA9r (press assoc)

At first I begin to despair that my work (and general) tea times would no longer be as pleasant as they were.

Then I notice one’s a Daily Mail article, have a read of that and then the press release and decide it’s just the latest in the crusade against the eeeevil microbes.

“Germs”

I hate this word.

Bloody loved my Boglins!

It’s in all the adverts. They’re illustrated with little green monsters that have no basis in reality I can fathom, except those weird little rubber gremlin finger puppets I remember from childhood, like mini boglins (does anyone remember boglins?!).

So these representations of microbes, the relevant ones mainly being bacteria (I assume, anyway), as evil little nasties going around with the intention of making your children sick and being generally filthy are just silly.

First, of course, single-celled organisms do not have brains and therefore are incapable of mischievous and/or malicious scheming.

Secondly, you’re covered in the things. We’re basically walking incubators; toasty, inviting niches all over the place. But don’t jump into a bath of bleach!! This has always been the case.

Bacteria have been around for a much longer time than any of the more complicated forms of life so whatever has sprung up in this world has had to live with them and we are certainly no exception.

We’re pretty well-suited to playing host to bugs, inside and out. Lots of them are quite useful (though the good/bad bacteria obsession of the yoghurt/milk drink industry is another topic altogether) and we’d be at a loose end without them.

Many just aren’t a problem. They don’t do anything for us but also won’t make us sick.

Then there are a few that are to be avoided where possible, but even if we do get sick, most of the time it’s not life-threatening (especially thanks to modern medicine!) and being ill is perfectly normal, especially when we’re growing up!

Practice Makes Perfect

Our immune systems need to develop. In order to build up a good range of circulating antibodies we need to be exposed to a range of antigens to trigger their manufacture. Antigens come on the surface of bacteria and viruses, for example.

In the case of some viruses, we deliberately put some antigens (but not the whole, active virus) into the blood to fool the immune system into thinking there’s an infection and generating the relevant antibodies, which then allow us to resist or effectively fight the real infection later on. That’s your vaccinations.

Anyway, point being, it’s quite an important part of healthy immune system development to come into contact with a range of bugs.

I won’t review the studies on how parents keeping their kids in a sanitised bubble has caused them to develop asthma and severe allergies to a whole host of normally harmless stuff. Others have.

I grew up with pets and scrambling in woods/muddy places (one of my favourite games was making little mud cities for toys and collected insects in the garden, much to mum’s dismay as she tries to make a nice rockery). I’m occasionally allergic to mosquito bites (because I get so many) but other than that not a lot. Oh and hayfever severity varies depending on where I’m living.

Still, personal anecdote doesn’t count for much; a family friend has apparently admitted that her obsessively clean house has probably contributed to her son’s multitude of allergies. Which is good I suppose, but a little late for him.

It’s a balancing act of course. Exposure to allergens does sensitise us to them and can cause allergies, so dust and animal fur, mold spores etc. can be harmful. Everything in moderation as the old adage goes.

Playing on Fear

The aforementioned Dettox and other brands really take advantage of parental fears over hygiene and preventing childhood illnesses by marketing lots of products with such outlandish claims as

KILLS 99.9% OF ALL BACTERIA INCLUDING E. COLI

The result of the hysteria over ‘germs’ can often be that people keep things too clean. The thing with bacteria, as anyone who’s had anything to do with hospital hygiene and/or evolution knows, is that when you wipe out a whole bunch of them, the ones that are left are generally the best at surviving.

You’ve just done them a massive favour. The competition is gone! Now they’ve got more resources and space for them to grow and as they grow, they get even better at it, then next time the cleaner comes around, maybe they won’t care at all.

The same can happen in the home.

Breathe Easy

It’s great to keep the kitchen clean; I generally do (but it’s a student flat so it gets pretty disgusting at times) and knowing how to properly prepare and store meat/fish is essential if you don’t want to give yourself and guests food poisoning. Also rinse out cloths/sponges and let them dry; moisture is what the bugs like and if you use a wet old cloth you’re just spreading them around.

But people have taken it too far, sterilising everything to excess. My mum and I discussed the other day after seeing yet another advert for things to make your baby’s high chair so clean they can eat off it; surely spraying all the cleaning products around can’t be good for kids either?

Seems Michael Gough had the same thought and his comment was published in New Scientist (in 2003!) though it seems people are more concerned about the house being sparkling and smelling weird (don’t get me started on air fresheners) than what their kids breathe in.

Dubious Gadget

Mother and I spotted this ozone thing whilst browsing in TK Maxx (on sale for around £10 if I recall) and I felt I had to document it.

Hello, what’s this we’ve found in TK Maxx? Let’s have a closer look…

A look at their website shows their endorsed by Ainsley Harriot (or at least, he sells stuff there and they link to him). Tsk.

Brought to us by Home-tek International Limited, Roe Head House, Far Common Road, Mirfield, West Yorkshire, WF14 0DQ – C.E.O. Jamie Lennox.

This little light-up mini-toilet-like dooda apparently generates ozone in a tub of water so that you can stick all sorts of stuff in it to magically ‘KILL‘ all kinds of microbes; bacteria, viruses and fungi.

I had a look in the instructions to see how they justified selling this or if they explain how it worked at all.

Sadly not. Have a look – it’s kind of hilarious. As far as I can see it just lights up and (going by the picture) makes bubbles; I’d be interested to see if it does actually ‘work’.

The most ridiculous claim is that it kills microbes because they have ‘ozone receptors’ on their outer membranes, which conveniently absorb ozone, leading to their destruction! Yes, ozone is toxic but not because of receptors; it’s a very powerful oxidant (being comprised of oxygen and all).

This PDF from a marine centre states

Most water treatments to condition but not sterilise water with ozone operate on contact times of 1 –2 minutes. Sterilisation with ozone may require contact times of up to 10 minutes and even 30 minutes for effective treatment of some viruses. Contact times can be reduced by applying higher concentrations of ozone to the process water.

Somewhat at odds with the product’s 15 second operation time and “only a few seconds are required” statement. However since they give no actual figures re: output, one cannot calculate supposed effectiveness.

It bothers me that if you google ‘ozone gas safety’, for example, the top sites that come up tend to be ozone machine-peddling companies saying it’s all fine.

Ozone is classified under COSHH (control of substances hazardous to health) regulations, which anyone with experience in biology/chemistry will be familiar with, yet no mention of possible dangers were in the instruction booklet, that I saw.

A glance at wiki (or common sense) does point out that it’s also toxic to people.

Due to the strongly oxidizing properties of ozone, ozone is a primary irritant, affecting especially the eyes and respiratory systems and can be hazardous at even low concentrations. The Canadian Center for Occupation Safety and Health reports that:

“Even very low concentrations of ozone can be harmful to the upper respiratory tract and the lungs. The severity of injury depends on both by the concentration of ozone and the duration of exposure. Severe and permanent lung injury or death could result from even a very short-term exposure to relatively low concentrations.”

This seems to contrast quite starkly with Biotek’s assessment:

Ozone is completely safe

because…

in over 100 years of use, there has been never been a fatal accident.

So it’s ok, everything’s completely safe unless someone’s died!!

This site seems to summarise the risks better. Lots of companies seem to offer equipment for air purification or disinfection services, while others (the more reputable-seeming ones, generally) warn against its use and cite risks of respiratory damage.

Anyway, it seems ozone is a widely-used substance in the world of woo. Might keep an eye on it.

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Author: noodlemaz

I prefer to think of myself as a realist rather than a pessimist, but perhaps that's just optimistic. Honest, atheist, scientist, feminist.

One thought on “Germ Warfare

  1. There seems no limit to the way bad science is used to flog useless gadgets. So Ozone is used to “seek out bacteria at its molecular source…” Oh dear!

    Another cracking post Noodlemax – I’ve read a few of your recent posts and not commented due to lack of time, but they really are very good!

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