June 2, 2012 | David F. Coppedge

Don't Hate Bacteria Irrationally

It should be well known by now that we are surrounded by bacteria, mostly benign, all the time — inside and out.  Some reporters still attempt to gross out the public and make misleading statements from scientific findings.

Men’s Offices Have More Bacteria, Study Finds.”  National Geographic reported this alongside a photo of office bubbas, visually suggesting that the ladies should keep their distance from the male germ bags.  Further reading, however, reveals that the reason may simply be that men are bigger in general, not necessarily dirtier. There was only a suggestion by the authors that men, in general, are more “slovenly” in their hygiene habits, although that was not a focus or observation in this study.  By implication, if women were larger on average than men, the ratios would reverse.

The report is based on research published in PLoS ONE.  Researchers surveyed bacteria in 30 offices each from cities as distant from each other as San Francisco, New York and Tucson, taking samples from phones, computer keyboards and mice, chairs and desktops. Interesting results emerged:

  • About 500 species of bacteria inhabit offices – similar to amounts previously measured in bathrooms and airplanes.
  • Most of the bacteria are common species that live on human skin or in nasal, oral, or intestinal tracts.  A few were identified as soil-borne.
  • Sample sets from New York and San Francisco were indistinguishable.  Tucson, however, had a clearly distinguishable microbial set.
  • There were no significant differences in the bacterial diversity between offices inhabited by men or women.
  • The differences in germ counts between men and women was found to be approximately 255 to 215 (mean), but within error, could be as little as 240 to 220.

One needs to read to the last sentence to understand the message from co-author Scott Kelly:  “Overall, unless, say, a cold is spreading around, office bacteria are nothing to fear, Kelley said, adding, ‘I don’t want people to be frightened of their own offices.'”

The abstract of the paper ended with a quote: “[H]umans move through a sea of microbial life that is seldom perceived except in the context of potential disease and decay.” – Feazel et al. (2009).”

Before giving SNL fodder for more male-female jokes, remember the facts: we carry our sea of microbes with us everywhere we go.  If you spend eight hours of a day sitting in a chair and talking on a phone, what do you expect?  Our bodies are covered with orifices (no, not just the obvious ones); we shed skin and hair all the time, and with it, the bacteria that live there.  No amount of washing or showering gets rid of our persistent partners.  There are more of them than your own cells.  Get used to it.  If you had a happy life before knowing this, what’s the problem?  Many of the “germs” are beneficial.  We could probably not live without some of them.

Hygiene is good to a point.  In the extreme, it can backfire.  According to the “hygiene hypothesis,” our immune systems need microbes to work on.  Kill them all and our immune systems turn on our own cells.  Do the usual; wash your clothes, shower, and wash your hands.  Avoid sneezes and coughs by the sick.  Other than that, don’t worry. By all means, don’t generalize about men and women.  Microbes are equal opportunity hitchhikers.

One thing more of us could use is some outdoor experience.  Spending all day in a concentrated indoor office is unnatural.  Interact with the environment once in awhile.  Work in the garden.  Take a hike.   Ride a horse.  Pet a dog.  Climb a tree.  Life is a community thing in which we interact with thousands of other complex, intelligently-designed beings.  Enjoy your companions.



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