Hygiene misconceptions cleared up

29th of December 2021
Hygiene misconceptions cleared up

Netherlands correspondent John Griep reports from the recent VSR Hygiene Forum where some misconceptions about hygiene were addressed.

“Nowadays, even the chair at the optician is disinfected before the next customer takes his seat. Even though most infections are contracted at home and not in a restaurant or at schools,” said the German microbiologist and professor Dirk Paul Helmut Bockmühl, one of our speakers during the Hygiene Forum which we organised recently, together with two other sector organisations.

The pandemic has raised awareness about hygiene. This heightened awareness causes people to take measures in order to prevent contamination resulting from coronavirus. But some measures go too far and are not based on scientific facts. They then create a form of false security.

Cleaning sufficient

VSR has previously reported that in most cases proper cleaning is really sufficient for good hygiene. Cleaning with a normal detergent (or microfibre cloth without detergent) removes nearly all micro-organisms, including virus particles. Time does the rest. Disinfection is only necessary in specific cases, such as in the food industry, in animal husbandry, in care and hospital institutions and in the event of an outbreak of infection.

Bockmühl cleared up another misunderstanding: the hygiene hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, cleaning too well would have a negative effect on our immune system. Cleaning too well would increase allergies; a little dirt would therefore be good for us. This hypothesis has sometimes been advocated in the media. A newspaper once ran the headline: “How dirt can protect you against cancer.”

According to Bockmühl, this is not true. “There are different triggers for different allergies and so there are various reasons why allergies increase at any given time.” The hypothesis that cleaning too well has a detrimental effect on our immune system, can therefore be rejected.

Positive effects

However, unhygienic contact in the family circle in early childhood can cause infections which improve the immune system against allergies, such as asthma. But the professor emphasised that this is not about unhygienic contact via a dirty kitchen worktop, for example, but about certain microorganisms which room-mates transmit via droplets (aerosols). We need these when we are very young to train our immune system.

Microorganisms are actually a kind of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: they cause problems and, at the same time, are useful. You could say the same thing about the pandemic. This causes problems, but also - now that it is here - positive side effects. The increased awareness of hygiene creates a greater appreciation and respect for the cleaner.

For example, at the beginning of the pandemic in the Netherlands, the cleaning profession was labelled a “crucial profession”. In their televised speeches, both the King and the Prime Minister honoured the cleaners who - together with a number of other crucial professions - ensured that what had to go on, could go on in a country which had ground to a halt. The pandemic cannot be over soon enough, but it is to be hoped that we can maintain this renewed appreciation for our beautiful profession.


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