YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

A Dirty Secret Is Out: Cleanliness Can Be Bad for Your Kids' Health


If Howard Hughes were alive, he would just die.

Everything seemed to be going according to neurotic-compulsive plan. The army of household cleaners and disinfectants, including a new undercover corps disguised as aromatherapy, has been growing by the day. Disinfectant wipes, now available in every size and scent, are as ubiquitous as Kleenex, and wee bottles of liquid alcohol-based hand cleanser clink alongside keys and lipstick in bags and briefcases. Disposable instant mops line the shelves. We had entered the Age of the Germaphobe.

For parents, especially, the message was clear: A clean house is a good house, a safe house, a healthy house. If we loved our children, we would raise them on sleek, blinding white floors. Our grout would be pure as the driven snow. We would banish dust bunnies as if they were dragons, dog hair as if it were toxic waste. Dirt is unnatural, dust is the enemy, freedom is slavery, etc.

Then along came a little study titled "Environmental Exposure to Endotoxin and Its Relation to Asthma in School-Age Children," the title page of which should be framed and hung in every home in America. Because this European study, published in the September issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, suggests that dirt, even those weird gritty crumbs lurking beneath your child's bed, is a good thing.

Analyzing the environments and asthma rates of more than 800 farm children in Switzerland, Austria and Germany, researchers discovered that increased exposure to germs from animal waste coincided with a markedly low rate of allergies.

Only 3% of the farm children suffered from asthma, 4% from other allergies. In cleaner households, 6% of children had asthma and 11% suffered from hay fever.

According to the researchers, exposure at a young age to endotoxins--bits of bacterial cell walls from farm animals and other sources--may strengthen the immune system. In other words, a house can be too clean to be healthful.

This could mark the first time in history that the New England Journal of Medicine has better newsstand sales than People.

Meanwhile, at the Journal of the American Medical Assn., preliminary findings from another study indicated that early exposure to multiple animals also lowers the chance of a child developing allergies.

A study of 474 children found that those exposed to two or more cats or dogs during the first year of life were half as likely to become allergic to pets, ragweed, grass and dust mites.

Dog hair and dirt as childhood inoculations. How much better could it get?

Apparently, there has been a theory bouncing around for years that connects the recent surge in allergy rates--asthma has almost doubled since 1980, according to the CDC--with our growing obsession with cleanliness.

According to the "hygiene hypothesis," humans have always had close contact with dirt and animals, and this exposure to bacteria stimulated the immune system. A sheltered, over-wiped immune system, some researchers say, tends to be high-strung and will overreact to pollen, particles and dust.

For most people, this blazing burst of information will be right up there with the invention of disposable diapers, the remote control and democracy. Because now, armed with scientific analysis, people can walk through their homes, as streaky and dusty as they may be, with a new perspective. That's not nauseating crud peeking out from beneath the refrigerator, it's an allergy prevention program. Those are not reproachful nests of dog hair crouched in the corners of the dining room, but asthma treatments. That is not a dirty kitchen floor, that is a time-honored method of making healthy, happy immune systems.

Now if those researchers would only take another look at the nutritional possibility of French fries....

Los Angeles Times Articles