Friday, March 20, 2009

Fecal content warning

I swear I'm not a shill for Invitrogen, the source of this (in my opinion) very cute picture. The company which sells these lists this particular specimen as Shigella dysenteriae, as in "the bug that gives you dysentery" (where you bleed out of

There's a fine line between a healthy respect for the organisms that, until this past century, have kept the human population at bay (well, that, and our propensity for killing each other) for millenia past, and outright paranoia, and many people, it would seem, verge on outright paranoia. Those little alcohol-gels (don't blame me if you don't like what you read at this link)? There's a reason they sell so well.

We feel threatened by "airborne bacteria", so we spritz our bathrooms with Lysol, even though the "aroma" of our offering to the porcelain god is due to mercaptans and hydrogen sulfide, and trace quantities of other gases that can't be killed and the perfumes leave us (me) gagging. We are terrified of the germs that could be infesting the average seat on a public bus, yet we'll happily put together a salad from an open salad bar. And what is up with triclosan in everything? I'm not one to buy the conspiracy-theorist-like claims that triclosan causes cancer (and supercancer and chronic fatigue and Lyme disease and it's mother), but soap by itself is actually pretty damn antibacterial, and adding triclosan doesn't do anything--plus we don't know yet whether it actually does harm the environment or provide the boot camp that turns regular strep into MRSA.

I'm quite aware that germs can be quite nasty: the flu, while for many of us is merely an inconvenience, is occasionally deadly, and there's nothing quite like a bird flu "pandemic" to remind us that we are but one hop, skip, and jump away--mutagenically speaking--from another Spanish Flu. E. coli, particularly the nastier strains, hospitalizes and even kills--and yet, it is a ubiquitous member of our bodily fauna. But I'm not convinced that religiously bleaching the toilet is going to do anything other than make the cats high and give me a headache.

Nor am I convinced that you kill germs any more effectively with a harsh cleaner than you do with plain old soap and water. Germs, after all, are basically goo encased in biological membranes, which are highly soluble in soaps. Once you pop the bubble, so to speak, the germ is dead.

At least until the next one comes along. And that's the other thing to keep in mind: we've only been here for an evolutionary fraction of a second. It's really the bugs' world; we just live in it. They were there when the dinosaurs ruled the earth, and they'll be there when our species crashes and burns the planet.

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