The Dirty Life – More Thoughts on Germs

And so the conversation on hygiene continues! How much of germophobes are we?

This week, while at Friends of Burlington Gardens, the small talk in the office turned to the topic of compost. How do you clean out those pesky compost buckets? This is a hot topic as the weather gets warmer… I think the little critters in my food scrap bin are multiplying a little bit faster now that we’re moving into spring, turning my produce ends into a fragrant pile of funk…

Compost Bin

Image via Wikipedia

Jenn, one of the coordinators at FBG, admitted she is a bit of a germophobe herself, as she and others in the office chatted about the best ways to wipe, rinse, or otherwise clean out the home compost container. A visiting volunteer added that those germs may make  our immune systems stronger, but admitted that she, too, had that germophobe spirit and was adamant about hand washing, especially when working with kids.

So what is our deal with these invisible microbes? I have been enjoying a little reading of sociologist Deborah Lupton‘s work for some insight on our relationship with germs. Lupton argues that we fear the entrance of anything foreign into the body – such as a food we have never tried before. For instance, most of us who have grown up in a westernized culture would likely be uncomfortable eating grasshoppers because we feel anxious and unsure about the effect this foreign product would have on our bodies. Lupton would say we have fear and anxiety over the risk of this food compromising the body, that we regard the body as this sacred vessel that is vulnerable to the outside world whenever we introduce any exogenous substance – such as food.

There exists a fine line between a slightly over-ripe, semi-fermented food that we regard as safe and edible, and a food which is rotten and could possibly make us feel sick. Are those leftovers from last week still okay to eat? Everyone’s definitions of safe and unsafe food are a little different.

Similarly, the layers of food decay that have caked onto the compost bin are perceived as more of a health risk by some than others. This idea that I am applying to the compost bin may not suit the microbiologist who can physically measure bacterial counts to decide relative health risk, but, for the rest of us who rely on a less sophisticated assessment, would you agree that compost looks a little more “germ-y” and threatening as a result of the food appearing increasingly foreign and unfamiliar? And, if not, I would love to hear your great theory on why some of us get so grossed out by our food scraps!

FN 3/19

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2 comments on “The Dirty Life – More Thoughts on Germs

  1. Jess Hyman says:

    There is a wonderful quote by Canadian author Margaret Atwood: “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
    This simple statement says that we can (and should) actively connect to the seasons and to the soil. Our food grows in dirt and becomes dirt. Food safety and basic hygiene are important, but humans are strong and resilient. I grew up drinking raw milk and playing in the dirt – in yards, barns, fields, and forests. I rarely got sick until I reached high school – was this because I was exposed to all sorts of microbes that made me stronger? Who knows. What I do know is that I had a very happy childhood – thanks to dirt.

    • Well put! I agree that time in the dirt is very grounding. At the same time that we discuss health risk and benefit of germs, I’m glad you bring up the bigger picture. There’s a mental peace I can find when I think about dirt rubbing against my palms – and the smell of it when the dust rises in the air.

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