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 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 !


  1. Ha ha sometimes even green. I so agree. I try an emulate the way my mother and grandmother lived. I use the household cleaners they used, the way they kept house, cooked etc. My grandmother avoided plastics to store food for example. Rarely had tinned products. I like a lot of what they did and it makes sense to me. Funny how people scrub their fruit and veges yet dont really know how their food came to be. And all the pesticides used to produce them. Maybe these harsh times might bring some common sense back into the world and we will have to do things more simply again.

  2. I think Sudhir was right, too! I've held, for a very long time, that we have destroyed our own immune system here in the states with the total obsessive fear of germs. And your last paragraph says it all! Perfect! I stopped being one of those fanatics -- if I ever was even close -- a long, long time ago. Thanks as always for such a great post!

  3. What you said is so true. When I came to US first time I was surprised to see my Indian roommate living here for past 3 years suffer with cold and cough during the pollen season. Since i had never heard anyone falling sick due to pollens i teased her that she is too Americanized. But i was so surprised when i suffered from the same 3 years later. I actually had to see a doctor since the over the counter drugs didn't work on me. Its true we owe our immunity to our country :-)
    One more thing that i noticed in US was that people are too scared to go near anyone suffering from cold. They will not touch anything this sick person has touched and will actually treat him as untouchable. I feel bad when it happens to me sometimes, but then i think their caution is justified coz they dont have a powerful immune system to fight it.

  4. As is an interesting article ...and since I have been in India I know what you say...I know I can vouch for it as I have built a resistant tummy...unlike my colleagues who visit India for work..they eat the freshly cut salad...and after that they have to be practically locked up in the toilet...and on the extreme case I was flying back to KL with my boss and lawyer, I had to be awake throughout the flight as he had a bad case of food poisoning (I had the same stuff) in a 5 star hotel, but he was like very, very sick and we had to place him in a wheel chair from the plane and he was hospitalized for 3 days...(he said it could be the tomato salad..)

    The other extreme case on cleanliness is my present boss in KL, he was washing the cut green chillies in a Chinese restaurant...with Chinese tea...I eat the same stuff almost every other day...I am ok...maybe my stomach has been toughened in Hyderabad India....

  5. Thats exactly what friends and relatives of mine said when they hit Singapore. We remember them coming back and exclaiming, that there just was no dirt...

    And wondered how on earth could life go on with that spanking cleanliness !

    Hmm !!


  6. Very interesting article, and I love the picture of the child.

    About tummy problems of Westerners, I think it is because there are germs in water everywhere, some to which we are accustomed (in our country) and some to which we are not accustomed (other countries).

    You are so right about consumerism, we can't go on like that.

  7. I can tell you that our immune system in India is the best. It is the consumption of the Paani Puris(GOD knows from where the vendor brings the water plus all his sweat added), that makes us immune.
    The only sad fact is that we are immune to other things too.

  8. We become immune to the germs present in our own environment, but if we drink the water in another country we will get, what we laughingly call, "tourista." I got tourista in Mexico from eating ice cream. But the natives could eat it with no repercussions.

    When we peel the viggies we are peeling off the vitamins and minerals that we need. Until pesticides, a simple wash under cold running water was sufficient.

    Too bad we had to start soiling our own nest.

  9. Lilly Isnt it strange, that we pay so much attention to commercial ads spouting semi lies, , and completely ignore what the older family members have been advocating with their time tested habits in cooking and so on ? I still have this very heavy cast iron wok which has been in my family for at least 60 years....and it has specific uses.

    Sylvia Thank you. Try telling this to somefolks and they laugh at you. Everything modern is supposed to be great ....and no one bothers to stop and think out each case..

    Enchanted I live in one of Mumbai's most highly wooded areas, and the pollen has never bothered me. I too heard about this pollen fuss when I went to grad school in 1970's, but never had any problem. Another thing is this hay fever runny eyes/runny nose thing everyone has in summer. Never understood it. A couple of weeks of travelling in the Suburban service of Central railway, standing in the doorway should be a "raambaan " cure :-)

    Sukku very sorry to hear about your friends having all these digestive catastrophies. I suppose you need to stay here for a longish time, to allow your stomach to learn new things slowly.....

    Kavi It is so common in households here to make chutneys and stuff from certain vegetable peels. Its quite amazing to see folks here washing cucumbers with soap , and then happily eating "potato peels" as a dish in a mall in the US ..... Hmm.

    Helene H Sometimes I think the state of the mind affects the digestion. If you eat in a frightened way, thinking your food contains germs ( that too, after you can eat something like pigs meat happily), I am sure you dont do yourself any good. I think mental attitude and state has a lot to do with immunity, but I may be wrong.....

    nsIyer How true. This thing about us being immune to other things ..... And then we shamelessly turn around and say ,"We are like that only!"

    DarleneWhat you say is so true. ....

  10. Who knew there was so much interesting stuff to know about and think about regarding good old Dirt! LOL at the thought of 'dirtified' certification. On a seious note, yes, I think extremes should be avoided, so also blind aping of other cultures. BTW, talking of 'peel' preparations, coincidentally just a few minutes back I read a recipe to make chutney from ridge-gourd peel.
    P.S.: I wrote to you..Did you get it?

  11. RajkYes, I did get your mail, and also fwded it to the other members of the lunch group. Too bad this was such a hurried trip for you....

    Incidentally, the peels chutney tastes wonderful. We've made doodhi peel chutney for years.....:-)

  12. My immune system gave up this weekend ... doc found lots of worms in my stomach ... after reading you article i wonder if i were in any of the extra-clean places, i would have been hospitalized by now ! Feeling nice to have a 'Made-In-India-immune-system'!

  13. Sadhhya amchya kade amhi sagle itke ajaarpanani trasta ahot khara tar nustach flu pan agadich vichitra virus aahe. Sagla anga itka thanakta ani agadi itki jhop ki jagachi pan shudhha nasavi .. ashi zombie sarkhi awastha zhalya sarkhi hote.

    Me pan roj taas bhar maatit khelava mhante(mhanje baagkaam etc ga)mhanje hopefully hey asle ajarpan honar nahit.


  14. Ugich,

    This is a great post. I grew up in a very "clean" suburb outside of Baltimore (on the east coast of the U.S.).

    I am now dealing with some intestinal issues and I would not be at all surprised if it is because of the perceived cleanliness of my food. I never ate fermented foods until recently, so I grew up without receiving any sort of beneficial bacteria. If I ate veggies it was baby carrots (which are conveniently pre-peeled and shaped) or cucumbers without a spec of dirt. While I did play outside in the dirt as a child, I'm sure the chemicals my dad used on the grass killed most of the bacteria that would help build an immune system. Many kids around here are getting lead poisoning from playing in the soils of their backyard and a growing percentage have intestinal disorders.

    I've been pondering diets for the past few weeks and thinking about how Americans often think of their diets as diverse and healthy. Yet if I really think about it, most truly healthy peoples lived on much less and without much of the western illnesses. I'm fascinated by Americans desire to always choose the easy way out and miss the systematic cost of our lifestyles.

    Thanks for the post.


  15. packaged dirt!? That's waiting to explod(r)e in the markets...

    Interesting read!

  16. Another take (off)...maati kahe kumhaar ko, tu kya raunde mohay...Ik din aisa hovega, main raundoongi tohay.

  17. Thank you so much for showing me this post! I don't know what to believe or think anymore. I've heard that we have more allergies in the U.S. because we are too clean. My daughter has more allergies. Is it because we were so paranoid with our first and relaxed with our second? Our second born isn't allergic to anything. We were always cleaning anything she might put in her mouth. Perhaps the adage, 'if it doesn't kill you, it will make you stronger' holds true.