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Let Them Eat Dirt (Or, Free Yourself From Hand-Washing Guilt)

I just love reading an article like this. How many times do you sit down at meal with your kids, having forgotten to remind then to wash their hands (or to physically wash their hands yourself, in my case)? For me, it’s almost every meal. It’s just one detail I repeatedly forget.

So I read with great interest this article from the New York Times about dirt, worms and the immune system. I’d heard of the hygiene hypothesis, where studies are showing that interactions with bacteria and viruses actually support the development of a strong immune system, and lessen the likelihood of allergies and asthma. This hypothesis is gaining momentum. Apparently, exposures from birth on are helpful in development of the immune system (and perfectly natural– how many of you have seen your baby sucking on your shoe? Or mouthing your keys?).

According to the New York Times article: “One leading researcher, Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said in an interview that the immune system at birth “is like an unprogrammed computer. It needs instruction.”

He said that public health measures like cleaning up contaminated water and food have saved the lives of countless children, but they “also eliminated exposure to many organisms that are probably good for us.”

“Children raised in an ultraclean environment,” he added, “are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”

The doctors recommend “washing in moderation.” (Did I mention I love this article?) We know the chemicals (like tricolosan) in most antibacterial soaps are bad for the environment and for people, and can lead to more resistant strains of bacteria. Here are the recommendations for parents (get ready to let out a sigh of relief):

Dr. Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, who wrote a new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” said, “I certainly recommend washing your hands after using the bathroom, before eating, after changing a diaper, before and after handling food,” and whenever they’re visibly soiled, she wrote. When no running water is available and cleaning hands is essential, she suggests an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Dr. Weinstock goes even further. “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” he said. He and Dr. Elliott pointed out that children who grow up on farms and are frequently exposed to worms and other organisms from farm animals are much less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.

Also helpful, he said, is to “let kids have two dogs and a cat,” which will expose them to intestinal worms that can promote a healthy immune system.”

So free yourself from hand washing guilt! I have and it feels good. It will make them stronger!

Image: spoonful of dirt by fortune cookie on Flickr under Creative Commons


  1. LOL! Noone could accuse me of making my kids live in an “ultraclean environment”. :)

  2. Ok. I have one MAJOR problem with this. I agree with the main points. However, the “let kids have two dogs and a cat, which will expose them to intestinal worms that can promote a healthy immune system,” can cause huge problems. If you do have pets, and those pets are infected with worms, they can be passed to the kids if they are exposed to the infected feces (mainly via the backyard, sandboxes, etc.) I don’t know what kind of worms the article is talking about — they’re not mentioned, other than pig whipworms — but simple earthworms? Sure. Canine/feline hookworms, roundworms, and whipworms? Not so much. Those can cause serious problems, from larvae migrans (where they burrow under the skin and cause creeping eruptions) to visceral migrans (same thing but in the organs) to blindness.

  3. I agree with most of this too, but I have chickens, and I’d like to keep the dysentery risk low!
    Also, for crawlers or any kids who spend a bunch of time on the floor (carpeting, mainly, but furniture too), you’ll want to wash their hands to reduce exposure to PBDEs, which are MUCH higher in tots than adults. I blogged on it a while ago: http://blog.thenatureschild.com/2008/09/enviroblog-tots-have-high-levels-of.html

    BUT, just because we’re washing their hands, that doesn’t mean we have to use tricolosan. We can always water down a bit of delicious-smelling castille!

  4. Sharon McEachern says:

    When doctors say you should relax with the hand washing, I get nervous these days. You can’t minimize some germs, like Methicillin-resistant staph aureus, MRSA, the strain of a once-innocuous staph infections that has become involnerable to first-line antibiotics and kills more people every year in the U.S. than the AIDS virus, In the majority of cases MRSA is contracted in hospitals. It is best, and easily, controlled by washing your hands with just soap and water.

    THIS IS THE FRIGHTENING PART — Even though it’s hard to believe, the chances are only 50-50 that the doctor treating you, and the doctor treating your kid in the hsopital, even when performing your surgery, has washed his hands. The odds are the same as flipping a coin. I wouldn’t flip a coin on my kid’s chances of survival!) Actually it’s worse than that. According to the National Quality Forum, hand-washing compliance rates at hospitals are generally LESS than 50 percent.

    It so frightening to hospitals — because patients can go into hospital for minor surgery and end up dead from MRSA — that they are using desperate methods to try and get doctors to wash their hands! Think secret surveillance cameras and hospital spies. To read more details, you can read:



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