08 January 2011

Fear and Manipulation

There’s nothing wrong with a good scare. In fact, some people have told me they got a scare or two from my work. Go me! A scare when you know you’re actually safe can be cathartic. As a side note, personally, I like a good laugh soon thereafter. Seems to add to the experience. But maybe that’s just me.

On the other hand, there are the real scares: serial killers, home foreclosures, microorganisms. Microorganisms?

The true scare involving biological material is terrorism, for example the sending of anthrax through the mail. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m thinking more in terms of the fear of bird flu on the doorknobs, or chicken juice on our kitchen counters. And the sponges we use? Germ nurseries, it seems. To hear the commercials currently running in the US, we’re surrounded by invisible invaders who are at war with us. Nothing but strong, antibacterial cleaners can keep us safe from this disease-causing onslaught.

The problem with the onslaught of these ads is that the goal is not to protect the public, but to put money in the pockets of those involved in the manufacture and selling of the products. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that antibacterial products do a better job of cleaning. In fact, all these products may be detrimental to humans. For one thing, the products are introducing more chemicals into our already chemically overwhelmed lives. Another, more complex, reason is the effect the antibacterial products are having on the microorganisms in our world.

Our world is teeming with organisms that most people will never see. In spite of what the ads want us to believe, microorganisms, including bacteria, are not horrible creatures out to destroy us. In actuality, the ecosystem of our world is completely dependent on the smallest of organisms. By changing the types and numbers of microbes in our environment, we risk harming the ecosystems of our homes, and perhaps even of the world at large. We could seriously damage our world—and ourselves.

The most immediate concern is that using antibacterial products could promote the growth of resistant organisms, much as the overuse of antibiotics has created antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This happens because it’s next to impossible to kill all the bacteria—or other microorganisms—in an area. The organisms that survive are more likely to be resistant to whatever was used to kill their buddies. These resistant bacteria then multiply exponentially and soon are the dominant species. Killing these babies becomes very, very hard.

Antibacterial products, like antibiotics, have their place. The problem lies in overuse. We’ve already seen that overuse of antibiotics cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The overuse of antibacterial products will likely result in the same type of problem. We’ll grow bacteria—or viruses, or mold, or yeast, etc.—that will be much more dangerous to humans than the mundane bacteria the products are designed to kill.

Humans have co-existed with microorganisms from the dawn of time. We not only have developed resistance to much of the harmful organisms, we also depend on them to help in digestion, to break down waste, in manufacturing, and even to eat (for example, mushrooms). We have learned, I hope, that messing up our ecosystem is bad for everybody. That extends to the micro world. We know many of the implications of using antibacterial products widely and indiscriminately, but there are likely problems that we won’t be aware of for several years.

For more info, you can check out this Centers for Disease Control site: www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol7no3_supp/levy.htm

Have a great weekend!


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