I'm not sure what caught my attention more, the title of the news article being "No matter how much you scrub, your home is covered in germs" or the fact that the opening sentence was "Sorry, clean freaks" which of course is the "handle" Lee and I took when starting the Talk Clean to Me blog. Either way, the topic is one that had to be shared.
In my book review for "The Germ Code" I introduced the concept of microbiomes and the fact that the bugs that live on us tell the story of where we live or had lived. The study at the heart of this article helps to solidify this concept. The researchers studied seven (7) families in three (3) states and found that they could easily match up who lived where using their "microscopic roommates". Even as babies we start picking up microbes on the skin, nose and gut that will make up living communities that we coexist with throughout life. In this day and age, the mention of "bug" generally leads us to immediately assume it is one that will cause disease, but the truth is many of these bugs play a critical role in digestion and our immune systems. They may also directly contribute to disease and even weight gain... finally I have an excuse!
In essence the bugs we live with make up our home's immune system. Certainly, bad bugs will show up from time to time, but perhaps instead of obsessing over killing bugs in our homes to stop the spread of infection we need to consider that many of these are "good" bugs and if we cultivate these it may lead to better health.
The 7 households within the study comprised of 15 adults, 3 children, 3 dogs and a cat and for 6 weeks the participants collected samples by swabbing hands, feet, noses and paws of everyone in their households as well as commonly touched surfaces such as doorknobs, light switches, floors and countertops. The findings showed that different homes harboured different populations of bugs and that these populations closely matched the microbiomes of the residents.
Most surprising was how quickly the bugs settled in. Reminiscent of Pigpen's trailing cloud of dust in the Peanuts comic strip, wherever the family moved so too did their bugs. In fact, it only took about a day for the microbes in a new location to closely resemble those of the old one. This phenomenon was seen even with a family who moved from a hotel room to a house! Having just spent 3 nights in a hotel, who's bugs did I sleep with the first night? Should I call room 442 tomorrow morning and apologize for leaving my bugs behind?
While the study showed our personal microbiome closely matches the bugs found in our homes, it was also found that if a family member leaves home for an extended period of time the microbiome of the home changes. Surprisingly, when one of the study participants left for a 3-day trip, the researchers found that the cocktail of bugs that were part of the normal flora of the house changed. In fact, they lost the contribution of bugs of the travelling person. It brings the concept of marking one's territory to a whole new level!
The key take home message I think is that bugs live on us and all around us. We should not despair, but learn to cohabitate and be smart in our cleaning and disinfection practices. Certainly we cannot underestimate the importance of both hand hygiene and cleaning and disinfection when it comes to our health. However, when it comes to cleaning and disinfection rather than feeling the need to annihilate every bug in our homes, perhaps we need to be more targeted in our approach and only focus on the surfaces such as bathrooms and kitchens where there is a greater likelihood of disease causing bugs living.