October 25, 2019

Credit: Getty Images / Kateryna Kon

*This piece was originally published on March 8th, 2019.

Are you a self-proclaimed germaphobe like President Trump? Well, if you think your home is sparkling clean, try walking around with a microscope. According to Rob Dunn, a professor of Applied Ecology at both North Carolina State University and the Natural History Museum of Denmark, we are surrounded by thousands of tiny species, living on every imaginable surface. And while some bacteria can be harmful, most just humbly co-exist with us... and some are more helpful than we know.

In his book, “Never Home Alone: From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets, and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live,” Dunn takes a safari through our homes, introducing us to these invisible creatures and explaining how, despite our fervent efforts to sanitize the world, we may be negatively affecting our own health.

Three Takeaways:

  • From Homo sapiens to Homo indoorus? The average American spends 23 of 24 hours indoors: inside our cars, homes or office buildings. But if you believe that means you’re in a sterile environment... that’s wrong. “Any moment you think you are alone is a misconception,” says Dunn. If you were to shrink yourself and walk along the surface of your home, you would notice everything is covered in bacteria. 
  • Since germ theory became widely accepted in the late 1800s, there has been a much greater awareness of health and hygiene. However, over time, there has also been an increased fervor about getting rid of bacteria, including those that are beneficial to us. With the increased use of pesticides and antimicrobials, we have been at war with the invisible creatures in our homes, and sterility has become the modern definition of cleanliness.
  • In the U.S., there are about 20 types of bacteria that make people sick with real frequency, Dunn says. And he argues that we should be concentrating on the best ways to control them. But powerful household products that promise to kill 99% of germs, and the overprescribing of antibiotics, have been speeding up an evolutionary process that often favors harmful species. 

More Reading:

  • Why do the people of Karelia, a region split between Russia and Finland after World War II, have wildly different health concerns? Some scientists believe it’s a story of the downsides of cleanliness.
  • Are developed nations too clean for their own good? Well, many suffer from diseases that rarely occur in less-developed countries, and that could because of their lack of microbial diversity.
  • Here is a list of celebrities who are afraid of getting their hands icky.

Green, microbes, dogs, Rob Dunn, biology

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