Saturday, January 31, 2009
The latest dirt on Dirt.......
Way back in the 70's and 80's there was still a sense of wonder and achievement when a person got a chance to travel overseas. IT , then, was someone simply emphasizing "it", and it certainly wasn't a password for going to do a job or graduate studies abroad.
So Sudhir's family was delighted when he got a chance to tour abroad , for the very first time in his life, as part of a team that accompanied a world famous Indian musician on his performances in Europe and America. The team enjoyed great hospitality everywhere, Sudhir got a feel of how it is to be a kind of assistant-celebrity, and he occasionally was part of the accompaniment on stage.
We asked him how he enjoyed his trip and what he liked . He was all praise for the arrangements, the hospitality, the punctuality, the smooth roads, the fancy cars, the amazing automation in homes with regard to labour saving , and so on. Then he said a very strange thing .
"Everything clean-clean. Not a speck here and there. Folks constantly mopping, cleaning,wiping, spraying stuff......you know, sometimes I got the feeling that things were just too clean !"
We cracked up. We thought he was being funny. But, it was his honest opinion......
His opinion was understandable, coming from someone who lived in a crowded suburb of Mumbai, in front of whose apartment complex, was a garbage place, where wandering cows zeroed in on things to drag and chew, as they rummaged around inside the dump. On his daily commute by train, he'd feel he was missing something if there were no pieces of old newspaper and snack papers under the seat.
But what he felt then has been echoed recently by someone at the University of Iowa.
Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, and Dr. David Elliott, a gastroenterologist and immunologist at the University of Iowa, have shown that when organisms from bacteria, viruses and worms enter the body from dirt, the immune system becomes stronger.....
Something called the "hygiene hypothesis" is there , which says that various worms, bacteria and viruses that enter the body inadvertently through normal dirt, actually build up your immune system in a very positive way. There is also something to the fact that autoimmune diseases, allergies, Asthma, Multiple Sclerosis, IBD/IBS, etc are very prevalent in the developed world, and almost not seen in countries hitherto described as "dirty"..... Examples are told about how babies like to pick up all kinds of junk from the floor and put it in their mouth, as a natural instinct. There is talk about studies on farm children in the western world, showing a different and better level of immunity than children in cities of the developed world.. Recommendations are made saying "let the children play in the dirt".......
And so we now swing between two scenarios.
One, where we are constantly spraying stuff on anything we touch, suspect everything new, throw away entire things at the slightest doubt about a part of it being suspect, and wash things so excessively that we start imbibing the soap.
The other scenario is, where, say, we allow babies children to wander and play , say in a cowshed . ...
We live in a world where extremes excite . There is no limit to how wide we swing to both extremes. This is true of behaviour of societies as well as individual lifestyles. There is a commercial interest in phobias being built up, and pharma interest in maladies being highlighted as life threatening. Besides giving rise to inflammatory type diseases, this has also led to psychological problems and imbalances.
I have had a running war with door-to-door sellers of water purification systems, when all I believed in was boiling. I wash all my veggies with plain running water, thoroughly, before I cut them. Traditionally, we use cotton cloth dusters to clean and mop the kitchen , as well as a separate set of dusters for hands while cooking. These are washed clean with detergent and dried in the hot sun before reuse again. We wash our hands and feet, routinely, when we come in from outside. But I have known folks who washed cucumbers with soap, and scraped carrots and radishes to half their thickness, in an effort at purity......
Maybe now US supermarkets will be flooded with "dirt" packaged beautifully, buy one, get one free, which you spread, say in the playroom or patio, or even your backyard. They will advertise worms, sourced specially from some country, and Trader Joe's will go ballistic marketing leafy veggies that give the worms a safe haven. Tissues will see a downturn in sales, paper towel factories will go bankrupt, and people will go to Washington and crib about how the government does nothing for them but only for the Citibank, notwithstanding the fact that paper-towel-factory types don't buy private jets but travel to Washington by Southwest Airlines and rented cars........
Children will be encouraged to wipe their noses with the back of their hands, after a rough and tumble game. Restaurants will advertise certified "dirtified" foodstuff, and people will be encouraged to eat with unwashed hands.The Dirt Devil will no longer be a vacuum cleaner brand name, but will be the hero of a new special TV series for children, the successor to the Sesame St series.
But what no one will realize , is that the babies who crawl on the floor, the world over, and pick up interesting things to check out with their mouths, are simply doing what has endured through thousands of years. This habit has survived through ages. For that, there has to be some benefit to the children. And so maybe it is the sort of Immunity 101 course for babies, training their growing systems to handle perturbations to their body, learning to fight infections, building up immunity and resistance.
No one deliberately likes dirt. Circumstances beyond one's control causes it. How much "dirt" you live in has to do with the weather, the populations densities, the dietary habits, level of industrialization in society, type of society and so on. Each country or society achieves some kind of steady state given all these parameters.
Dirt is good and bad. Life threatening infections in infants in developing countries, have to do with the problems of less. Life threatening or life changing maladies in developed countries, have to do with problems of more. A balanced, reasoned look at this subject is needed. Playing in the dirt cannot be a lifestyle decree. What is needed is a new understanding of what is considered dirt, in which situation and where. And the settling down to a studied "mean" level of lifestyle, complementing the chosen environment.
I have blogged about this "middle" stuff once earlier.....but then no one was researching and publishing stuff (except me and my blog :-), and no one was talking about organic dirt.
This fast slide into a super consumerist society needs to be halted. People need to learn to think, and not just follow declarations from up there somewhere. Its not a question of white and black. Life is all about different shades of grey and brown, and ivory. Sometimes, even green.
Actually, I think what Sudhir said was right !