Summer 2014

Ode to Filth

Living with dirt can be good for your health

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Photo: iStockPhoto

A woman named Whitney Barthel recently described her attitude toward dirt by writing candidly on the “Baby Center” blog: “I hate filth. I live on a farm, and I hate getting dirty. How ironic is that?”

Barthel admits, though, that her attitude is changing. She cites a statement from the National Wildlife Federation to the effect that “a growing body of research suggests the exact things we do in the name of protecting [kids] from dirt and germs, such as not letting them get too messy and frequently using hand sanitizers and antibacterial products, can inhibit their mental and physical health and resilience.”

Joel Weinstock, a professor of gastroenterology and immunology at Tufts, has been arguing this point for years (see “The Good Worms,” Tufts Medicine, Winter 2007). Barthel quotes him on her blog as saying, “Some children raised in ultra-clean environments may be missing exposures to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits,” Weinstock says. “This lack of exposure could promote some immune-mediated diseases. While we do not know what types of exposures are best for children, in our modern day society it should be OK for children to go barefoot and play in the dirt.”

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