This era of ultra-sanitization is going to make us all sick. I just went to Walmart. I wiped the handle of the shopping cart when I went in…wiped the handle when I left…wiped my hands…wiped down my wallet, keys and cell phone…oh, and the gear shift. I also wiped my credit card after the station attendant filled my tank with gas. And I did all this wiping with chemical-laden antibacterial wipes—all in the name of avoiding sickness.
My friend, a personal trainer, said that the fumes of the cleaners being used to hyper-sanitize the gym where she works (which just reopened with limited attendance) were so noxious that they gave her a migraine. These cleaners are terrible for people who have allergies, asthma and other chemical sensitivities. But, by golly, we won’t pass along coronavirus.
And it appears that the airlines have decided that germs are more dangerous than the threat of terrorism because now they are increasing the 3.4-ounce liquid limitation to allow 12 ounces of hand sanitizer to be brought on flights.
Meanwhile, until coronavirus came along, there were studies and reports about the dangers of hand sanitizers and completely avoiding exposure to germs. But prevention of coronavirus seems to have trumped (no pun intended) fears of cancer, norovirus and other illnesses, even though there is risk of ingesting these chemicals after they are left on your hands and can be transferred to food.
Chemicals such as triclosan, which has been linked to cancer and allergies in children, have been mostly removed from hand sanitizers and other antibacterial products thanks to a 2019 ruling…but other ingredients such as isopropyl alcohol and ethyl alcohol still are under investigation.
Even more frightening are studies showing that children raised with minimal exposure to germs actually are more vulnerable to illness than kids who attended preschool, where their immune systems were “exercised” daily. A really frightening 2002 study published in British Journal of Cancer showed an increased incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia among children whose immune systems had been less challenged than among children who attended day care. Theory: It is important for children’s immune systems to be challenged through environmental exposure to illness in order for them to develop properly.
The simple truth is that we need to be exposed to germs to develop protection from germs. When we kill the good bacteria along with the bad, we are killing a constructive part of our defense systems. There’s been a lot of talk about herd immunity when it comes to reopening the country and whether or not the quarantine was effective at flattening the curve and even stemming the spread of coronavirus.
Herd immunity is when a significant portion of a population develops antibodies to a sickness and theoretically is no longer susceptible to it. Ideally, once the vast majority of a population develops immunity, the impact of that sickness on the entire population going forward would be reduced. This can occur by administering a vaccine…or by enough people having become ill and recovering from the sickness. At present there is mixed data on whether a vaccine will be effective given that researchers don’t yet know if COVID-19 is caused by a single-strain virus, like chicken pox or mumps, or it has a variety of strains, like the flu. And the flu vaccine is only 40% to 60% effective each year. At present, hospitals are leveraging herd exposure by injecting blood plasma from people who have already had and recovered from COVID-19 into those who are currently hospitalized.
But even exposure to an illness without full-blown expression of the disease builds antibodies and future protection. Researchers are finding that thousands more people are testing positive for COVID-19 antibodies than had been technically ill. Were they sick but asymptomatic…or simply exposed to it and their bodies had been prepared to handle it?
We have not yet learned enough about COVID-19 to determine the full scope of the contagion. As we test more people, we will get a better understanding of the transmission and incidence of COVID throughout the population. For now, however, it is important to realize that the early data is showing that potentially upward of 10 to 85 times more people have COVID antibodies than actually became sick, making it also far less lethal than had previously been feared.
So here are our choices: Continue to live in fear of COVID-19 and every other germ out there—and there are lots of them…or realize that germs are now, always have been and always will be part of our natural environment. We cannot avoid them entirely. And we cannot kill them all, no matter how much hand sanitizer we use. But we can do everything possible to strengthen our individual immune systems to protect ourselves and avoid harming our bodies in the name of killing the germs. Eventually the treatments and vaccines in development will come to fruition. But then along will come COVID-20…21…22….
Sarah Hiner, president and CEO of Bottom Line Inc., is passionate about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to be in control of their lives in areas such as living a healthier life, the challenges of the health-care system, commonsense financial advice and creating great relationships. She appears often on national radio and hosts the Bottom Line Advocator Podcast, where she interviews leading experts to help people be their own best advocates in all areas of life.