The Dirt on Cleanliness
Human societies and most religions place a high premium on cleanliness. In Christianity, the saying goes that it’s next to godliness. There’s no doubt that being clean is vital in preventing the spread of diseases, avoiding food poisoning and many other health hazards.
But ‘clean’ is also a moral concept and a cultural preference that goes well beyond hygiene. In slang, ‘clean’ always means good, pure or high quality. Modern tastes favor clean lines in design, clean living and clean eating. Unfortunately, this love of clean in all things has some very dirty consequences.
Nowhere is the downside of clean clearer than in the home environment. In 1989 medical researchers first proposed that living in ultra-clean conditions might be implicated in the rise of allergies and autoimmune conditions, including hay fever and asthma. This was borne out by research showing that children on farms and in rural environments had a lower incidence of such allergies. These autoimmune problems were also lower in less developed countries but increased as they industrialized and became more affluent.
It’s now generally accepted that exposure to dirt helps the body learn to manage the threats posed by microbes. (An allied example is the role that good bacteria, or so-called probiotics, play in digestion.) And yet, the value placed on domestic cleanliness seems to be higher than ever. Consumers are bombarded with ads for products that achieve pristine kitchen countertops, sparkling toilets, and gleaming floors. Typically, they show homes that are also populated by squeaky-clean, picture-perfect families. Not only should your home look good, it should smell fragrant too, as the avalanche of ads for air fresheners and perfumed fabric conditioners insist.
It’s about selling the dream, but the reality is a little less shiny, starting with the fact that millions are spent every year on products that aren’t strictly necessary. Soap and water will usually do the job on most surfaces, without the need for heavy-duty detergents or antibacterial wipes that cost a lot more. Manufacturers have also developed specialty cleaning products for every imaginable dirt type and location. Many people will buy one bottle of detergent for the kitchen and another for the bathroom, even though a good general purpose cleaner would do both perfectly well. Ultimately, it’s about persuading consumers to buy more products.
It’s not only bad for your budget. The amount of extra plastic and packaging produced by the cleaning products industry and their impact on the environment is a problem in its own right. The contemporary culture of clean encourages overkill, and the over-use of often unnecessarily harsh chemicals, which don’t just vanish after they go down the plughole with the germs.
Energy and Noise Pollution
As well as the environmental contamination that clean craziness generates, excessive energy use and noise pollution are other unwelcome accompaniments. Makers have long sold vacuum cleaners on the basis of their superior cleaning power – which of course entails higher energy consumption. Yet, as consumer organizations such as Which? point out, more power doesn’t equate to more efficient cleaning. In the European Union, the maximum wattage for vacuum cleaners that can be manufactured has now sensibly been reduced from 1600 to 900w, as has the maximum permitted noise level.
Cleaning products are also a well-documented threat to health. Perfumed laundry conditioners and air fresheners can trigger asthma attacks and migraines in susceptible people. Numerous household products can lead to skin irritation. The threat many cleaning products pose to pets is perhaps less well known, but it’s a long list. To give but one example, popular disinfectants, such as the kind that turns milky in the water like Dettol, are potentially toxic to cats. Birds and fish are especially vulnerable to the effects of chemicals in household cleaners.
The preoccupation with clean, inside and out, spills over into multiple domains. Clean eating seemed like a good idea at first. It sensibly recommends eating lots of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, unsaturated fats and the like, all sustainably sourced. As one dietitian has noted, however, clean eating has come to imply that everything else is somehow dirty. Food puritanism can lead to bad choices too. The wrong mix of clean foods can be just as dangerous as a poor diet. It should be about a balanced diet, and that can include some processed foods, burgers and cake without risk.
In most things, clean is surely good, but moderation is key. Green cleaning products are a great alternative to chemicals, but a mindset shift is cheaper and often just as effective. Why fret about that invisible dirt that product manufacturers warn about? Sometimes it’s invisible because it isn’t really there, or poses little or no threat. Clean doesn’t have to be sterile. Junk food is okay as an occasional treat. Sometimes a bit of dirt is good for you, pets and the planet.
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