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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Finding Clarity on Clean Information…

A few years back, I became hooked on Trashopolis. It’s an incredible look at some of the world’s major cities and their relationship with trash. While an interesting part of the story is that some civilizations not only lived amidst but also in some cases, such as Mexico City and Mumbai, advanced with the help of trash, there are far more stories about how trash and a lack of cleanliness equated to certain death.

A History of Trash and Disease

Looking back over the ages, the spread of infection was almost entirely linked to unsanitary conditions but the longevity of these times was due primarily to a lack of clear and appropriate information. In Rome, the destruction of the aqueducts by the Goths in 537 AD led to the cessation of a clean water supply. It took almost a millennium before the onslaught of disease was curbed by Pope Nicholas V. The miasma theory of London suggested that highly impoverished areas where infection and death was common led to contamination of the air itself. Hundreds of years passed before experts such as Sir Francis Bacon, John Snow and Thomas Crapper found ways to improve water quality and sanitation, ending both the theory and the scourge. Even the city of New York wasn’t immune as it dealt with cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1849, partly thought to be due to the spread of miasma from Europe. Two dozen years later, Stephen Smith realized that poor sanitary conditions were the real reason behind the outbreaks and strived to democratize sanitation for all.
Visionaries and experts have continually led the road to a better life for all and the same can be said for cleanliness. Thanks to these individuals and many others not listed here, the world became a safer place.

A Clean Case of Confusion

Unfortunately, misinformation can also work to increase fear and worry and in the Age of Information, we are surrounded by conflicting views all competing for your attention.
If you’re mindful of advertisements, we live in a ‘white glove’ society where even the slightest bit of dirt is anathema. Television commercials promote an immaculate sense of cleanliness. Radio and newsprint continue to spread the word that good health is directly related to the cleaning agent we buy and social media is replete with companies all vying to turn your dollar into better health.
If you listen to the news, infections are more common than ever and our lives are continually at risk. We hear of outbreaks in hospitals, on cruise ships and even at the Super Bowl. Not a single week goes by without an infectious outbreak making the headlines. No matter how clean we may think we need to be, we continue to be losing ground against pathogens.
If you follow environmentalists and ecologists, we’ve become overzealous in our cleanliness. These people refer to the hygiene hypothesis, which states that we are suffering with increases in allergies and abnormal immune responses due to over-cleaning. Proponents here suggest that we need to cut back on our cleaning behaviour and start to live more naturally.
Without a doubt, between the advertisements, the headlines and the special interests, the only real outcome anyone can have regarding being clean is confusion.

A Case Study: The 99.9% Kill

In 2010, I was asked to write a piece on what 99.9% kill really means in terms of being clean. The need came as a result of an internet meme partly popularized by pop superstar Justin Bieber. The quote refers to a well-known disinfectant that “…kills 99.9% of germs.” But it was the next statement that really gained popularity. “That 0.1% germ is a Legend.” Twitter ran amuck with people quite badly interpreting the claim and forecasting a horrible future in which that 0.1% would somehow find a way to kill us all.
The article explained that 99.9% is a statistical value based on the results of standardized disinfection test procedures that quantify the efficacy of microbial kill or inactivation. In these tests an extremely high level of challenge is used, much higher than what would be expected in the real world, such that efficacy can be calculated based on the number of survivors. The level of survival is then calculated to a reduction in logarithmic magnitudes. A 3 “log” reduction in counts would equate to 99.9% kill. Thus, unless a surface had more than 1000 microbes, nothing would be expected to survive.
While the explanation was scientific, the gist of the message was to prevent panic about a non-existent legend. Moreover, people should understand that disinfectants are well tested and that by following the instructions on the label, they will adhere to good hygiene practice and have no problem staying clean.
After the article came out, I was asked a rather simple question, “Where can I learn more about this stuff?” The answer to the question was simple – I’ve done the testing and know the calculations; ask me! But that wasn’t the real spirit of the question. So, I decided to try an experiment. I would act as if I knew nothing and then go searching for anything that could give me the right answers.
What I learned was that the idea of looking for the real reason behind 99.9% kill was akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Despite a Google search leading to some 1.5 billion pages, I could not find a direct and trusted answer.
It got me thinking that even in this information age; we are no better off than the miasma forewarnings of the past. The internet is rife with ideas, suggestions and opinions but there are few places that I would trust. I could only imagine the frustrations that someone truly wanting to find answers would face.

Back to the Future

Reflecting on the successes of history, there is one common denominator that is missing in our modern society when it comes to being clean: a trusted expert. I am happy to say that there are several such experts who are just waiting to share their knowledge with the world. Most of them are members of excellent organizations that are committed to improving cleanliness and hygiene worldwide and information at these sites is both clear and trusted. They include the International Scientific Forum on Home Hygiene, the Water Supply, Sanitation and Hygiene Development group at the World Health Organization and the American Cleaning Institute.
Of course, there is also the Talk Clean to Me blog.
No matter where you look, the key is to find cleaning and hygiene experts who are willing to share their knowledge, dispel myths and more importantly, bring peace of mind so that you can live confidently clean.

Get In the Conversation

There is one more lesson from history that we can all learn and that is talking clean is a two way street. Without your questions, your curiosities and concerns, these experts will have no idea how to help. So here’s a challenge: think of something that perplexes you when it comes to hygiene or at being clean and share it below in the comments section. Don’t worry about jargon or language; your view is the reason this blog exists. Then, when an answer arrives, share it with your friends and bring them to the blog and ask them to do the same. Help to start the conversation and increase the knowledge sharing.
Eventually, as I’ve learned, the myths of the historical and recent past will be busted and you will find a way to live not only in a clean world, but also with a clean mind.



Jason “Germ Guy” Tetro has been involved in the scientific research community for nearly 25 years. He has worked on diagnostic technologies and has expertise in the food, water, air and bloodborne fields. He is currently Coordinator for the Emerging Pathogen Research Centre (EPRC) and the Centre for Research on Environmental Microbiology (CREM) both housed at the University of Ottawa. Jason is also known in public as the “Germ Guy” and has touched over 10 million viewers internationally on television, in print and through social media. The “Germ Guy” strives to increase awareness of hygiene and improve health worldwide. His blog can be found at http://germguy.wordpress.com/

1 comment:

  1. The disease and hazards that follow are very dangerous. Thank you for the post, and keep us updated!

    -Land Source Container Service, Inc.

    ReplyDelete