Let Them Eat Dirt

microbesNinety percent of the genetic material in your body is not yours.”

Wait, what? Well whose is it, then? According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, who runs the world’s most-visited alternative-medicine website, it’s from the 100 or so trillion worms, bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other microbes that call the human body home.

Now Mercola seems like a bit of a self-promoter and something of a quack, and I don’t know exactly how he comes up with this particularly exact number. But point is, there are whole ecosystems living in and on our bodies, and most of them, most of the time, are not only beneficial but absolutely essential to us. They are our partners, our protectors, our friends. And we’re killing them.

It all starts, as it should, in the birth canal. When you squeeze through it, you’re coated with beneficial microbes from your mother that help you cope with the harsh new world outside. The steep rise in elective Caesarian sections, however, means that many babies aren’t receiving this gift from mom, and whole generations are missing out on this first dose of natural immunization.

Our next immunological boost also comes from mom in the form of breast milk. The benefits of this magic elixir are well-known, so I won’t bother going into them here, but a good portion of them come from gut bacteria that in the short term protect against infection by harmful bacteria, and in the long term strengthen the immune system and reduce the occurrence of chronic health problems like food allergies and asthma.

Having pets actually exposes kids to beneficial worms and germs

Having pets actually exposes kids to beneficial worms and germs

And then it begins. “Yuck, don’t play in the dirt.” “Don’t pick your nose.” “Don’t touch that snail, it’s dirty.” We whip out anti-bacterial wipes and scour our children’s hands with them. We have only the best intentions – safeguarding our children from illness. Trouble is, it’s backfiring.

Touching a tree, then touching your face, isn't, in fact, deadly.

Touching a tree, then touching your face, isn’t, in fact, deadly.

A huge and growing body of evidence tells us that when children aren’t exposed to the complex cocktail of germs all around us they are more susceptible to illness and disease. Scientific studies into the subject, “along with epidemiological observations, seem to explain why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and allergies have risen significantly in the United States and other developed countries,” writes Jane Brody in the New York Times.

Don't know what he's eating here, but it didn't kill him.

Don’t know what he’s eating here, but it didn’t kill him.

Jeff Leach, founder of The Human Food Project, says that the “hygiene hypothesis,” first developed in the 1980s and now supported by innumerable studies, “holds that when exposure to parasites, bacteria, and viruses is limited early in life, children face a greater chance of having…autoimmune diseases during adulthood. In fact, kids with older siblings, who grew up on a farm, or who attended day care early in life seem to show lower rates of allergies.” In other words, when you obsessively “protect” your children from the germs that you think may harm them, you’re actually setting them up for more illness later on.

So you have an only child, you live in Brooklyn, and your kids are now too old to attend day care. What do you do?

Step one – Eliminate anti-bacterial soaps and wipes as fervently as you once wished to banish germs from your child’s body. Between 2000 and 2006, over 1500 anti-bacterial products were introduced in the US, and since then the onslaught has stepped up so considerably that it’s often difficult to find soaps that don’t contain antibacterial agents.

OMG! Is that untreated spring water? DEATH!

OMG! Is that untreated spring water? DEATH!

Although the chemical triclosan, found in over 75% of  anti-bacterial products, has been in use for over 40 years and is found in everything from soaps to toothpaste to toys, it has never been fully tested by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Triclosan is known to promote the growth of resistant bacteria, including E. coli, and was called in a recent paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science “a priority pollutant of growing concern to human and environmental health.” In 2005 the American Medical Association (AMA) took an official stance against adding triclosan and other antimicrobials to consumer products. In 2010, 37 Kaiser Permanente hospitals removed products containing triclosan, and Johnson and Johnson has pledged to remove the chemical from all its products by 2015. The FDA plans to rule on the use of triclosan later this year. Almost a half-century too late.

Nope, didn't wash his hands, OR that organic apple.

Nope, didn’t wash his hands, OR that organic apple.

Step 2 – Get your kids outside, and let them get dirty. “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” says Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston. Well, I’m going to have my kids wash their hands before they eat, but good old-fashioned soap and water are just fine.

I’ve written before about the many benefits of getting the kids out into natural spaces. Well here’s another one: Exposure to ‘dirt’ – in its many forms – far from harming them, helps to build their immune system, and makes them far healthier throughout their lives. And if they want to eat the stuff, or lick their dirty fingers or suck their filthy thumbs, then more power to them. Literally.

Here are some sites with good information on the topic, and great ideas for activities to get your kids dirty.

bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms that compose your microflora – See more at: http://www.warrenking.com/tag/flora/#sthash.2DtmqEzL.dpuf
It is from the nearly 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms that compose your microflora – See more at: http://www.warrenking.com/tag/flora/#sthash.2DtmqEzL.dpuf
It is from the nearly 100 trillion bacteria, fungi, viruses and other microorganisms that compose your microflora – See more at: http://www.warrenking.com/tag/flora/#sthash.2DtmqEzL.dpuf

27 thoughts on “Let Them Eat Dirt

  1. Pingback: Plants, Poisons, and the Future of Life on Earth | Field Notes From Fatherhood

  2. Thanks for this post! My daughter and I started volunteering for veggies at a local farm, and I LOVE watching her play our there. She gets to try and pet the cows, collect rocks, discover lost things (like rusted keys and chains) as well as a good dose of Vit. D. If it happens to have rained recently, even better as she jumps in the puddles till her entire body is dripping. Oh, and a huge portion of healthy veggies doesn’t hurt either!

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  3. Pingback: Cleanliness is Next to Impossible | Field Notes From Fatherhood

  4. Great post and I couldn’t agree more! There is a backlash from all of the sterilizing that we’ve been doing the last 50 years. It’s going to be interesting to watch this new generation grow with a mixture of tech and (hopefully) environmental responsibility being the norm

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  5. Agreed 100%. Our society here in the US is so bent on being over-protective of our kids that they do not grow as well as previous generations did. Their bodies are weaker and prone to the smallest illnesses. Their social skills and character are not as resilient. We have to stop being to over-protective, let the children explore and learn and guide them under the values that our parents had instilled on us-and stop listening to what the soap and hand sanitizer manufacturers tell us 🙂

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  6. My husband’s grandmother loves to say “Children need a pound of dirt in their bellies.” I agree, and then I’ll watch that ‘House’ rerun where that little boy got a freaky parasite from playing with sand that had raccoon crap in it. It’s a jungle out there. Thank God for soap. Go away, triclosan.

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    • Ok. Hugh Laurie is really pretty (even with the gimp), so it’s easy to take him at face value when he outlines the evil of raccoon shit in sandboxes. And a pound of dirt sounds like a bit of a load in a child’s belly. Perhaps there’s a middle ground between television-induced paranoia and stuffing our children with soil?
      Perhaps that middle ground is called sanity?

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  7. I totally agree with you. Having been born in the Phils. we played with dirt all the time. Although of course for good measure we got a thorough washing and a change of clothes before going to bed. But how many families do you think did that in the Philippines back then where majority are poor. And yet we’re sturdier than most kids our age back then. Now they have asthma, allergies, can even get into a house with cats, etc.

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    • I remember one of the first commercials for antibacterial soap, and it was really effective. It showed a kid touching a garbage can, taking a ball out of a dog’s mouth, just generally doing fairly gross things, then going into the kitchen and reaching for a cookie. You almost gasp with disgust as he does it, but fortunately mom is there to swoop in with antibacterial cleanser. It made good sense. Unfortunately, as you said, it’s created a generation of kids with weak immune systems.
      Thanks for your comments, young lady!

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  8. I was born a country bumpkin, and one of the few kids in my year group that didn’t need a TB jab at school. When I tell my girlfriend (city dweller, ha!) that it’s because I played out in the mud and dirt as a child she just scoffs in my face.

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  9. I think I’m odd. I have a touch of hypochondria but I’m not at all afraid of the kids getting deliciously dirty.

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    • Deliciously dirty indeed, muggles. We were in the countryside this weekend, and one of the most gratifying things about our time there was watching the boys entertaining themselves and having fun without toys or LED screens. Just getting down in the dirt or playing in the stream or picking up bugs. It was fabulous.

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      • Sometimes I wish we lived in the country so that they could have that type of childhood. I guess there will always be advantages and disadvantages no matter where we are.

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    • The mania hasn’t really gotten much of a toe-hold in Europe (although I think more so in the UK), but bactericides are rampant in the US, and most people just use them as a matter of course.
      That may change, Linda. It looks like the EPA will probably ban triclosan, which will either sound a death knell for the anti-bacterial industry or send them scrambling for a replacement. I hope it’s the former. Anyway, it will hopefully send a message to folks that obsessive cleanliness does more harm than good.

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