Home Hygiene & Health
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IFH media survey now online

The IFH siurvey of media coverage is now online at: https://www.ifh-homehygiene.org/review/perceptions-cleanliness-hygiene-and-hygiene-issues-%E2%80%93-survey-uk-and-us-media-coverage-1989

Review from IFH: Public perceptions of cleanliness, hygiene and hygiene issues – a survey of UK and US media coverage 1989 to 2017

IFH has recently reviewed of 54 media articles about hygiene and cleanliness, It makes interesting reading, showing the misleading reporting of this issue. Of concern is the fact that many of the inaccurate statements were purported to come from experts.

The “whopping” numbers of germs in our homes! Of 18 articles, where homes were sampled, 12 emphasized the large numbers of microbes found– ranging from 100s to 1000s to millions per sample area – but most did not say that finding large numbers is quite normal and most are not harmful to health. Microbes were mostly referred to as germs (10/18 articles) or bacteria (11/18).  More than half (10/18) used sinister terms like “disgusting, hidden, dangerous, deadly” implying that the microbes are undesirable and should be eliminated.  A few articles were explicitly scaremongering e.g: “My dishwasher is trying to kill me! ‘Deadly bacteria found”, “The kitchen sponge is 200,000 times dirtier than a toilet seat - and could lead to paralysis”.  Ten of 18 articles rated there were more bugs/germs/bacteria on the surface than on a toilet seat - figures ranged for 40x more up to 200,000x.  What’s this all about – can’t they say something more original!!
Are we too clean for our own good. Most articles (75% of 36) talked about “dirt and germs” exposure as necessary for building a “healthy” immune system.  In recent articles, urging exposure to dirt, soil or through gardening has become a recurrent theme.  Again journalists talked about ‘germs’ without saying whether this meant ‘harmful microbes’ or ‘any type of microbe”.  This is critical because it is the fundamental difference between the hygiene hypothesis which is no longer supported (that too much hygiene and cleanliness has reduced exposure to infectious microbes), and the now widely accepted Old Friends Mechanism (that lifestyle changes are to blame by  reducing exposure to the diverse mostly non harmful microbes in our animal and natural environment).  Overall, 30/36 articles (83%), even the most recent, cited home or personal cleanliness as the underlying cause of reduced exposures, despite the fact that, from about 2005 onwards, 15 (42%) of articles were quoting new data showing that lifestyle factors such as less outdoor activity/farm living, increasing C-section births, reduced breastfeeding, altered diet, overuse of antibiotics etc are the most probable causes.  Even then, 13 of these 15 articles also cited “home cleanliness or hygiene as a further example of a causative lifestyle change. Despite lack of evidence, 23/36 (64%) articles also said that overuse of antibacterials, hand santizers etc is a contributory factor, and in 14 out of 23 articles, this opinion was purported to come from an expert. 

Impact on consumer understanding The extent of the confusion in the mind of the public is illustrated by their responses to the media articles and illustrates the scepticism which the content aroused. Many expressed disbelief, otherwise “how come we are not constantly sick”. Some concluded the scaremongering is “just to make us buy antibacterial products”. 

Consumer responses to articles suggest that the public (and the journalists) still believe that the rise in allergies is “lack of exposure to Infectious germs and - since germs are largely associated with dirt, then too much household cleanliness is the cause”.  Based on public understanding of of vaccination, namely that challenge from harmful microbes/germs is needed to make the immune system strong enough to fight germs, they appear to believe the same principle applies to pollen, dust etc. When journalists asked experts what people should do to increase exposure to ‘good’ microbes, advice included more outdoor activity, getting outdoors, getting dirty, fondling pets and avoiding excessive antibiotic use.  Worryingly, it also included advice expected to increase the risk of infection – such as not washing hands!!.
Although the responses do not necessarily represent a true cross section of consumer opinion, it highlights the need to do further studies to find what consumers understand about how infections spread and the role of hygiene.  Also to find out where consumers get their knowledge, and to what extent inaccurate media reporting may be contributing to public misunderstanding and mistrust about infection risks and the importance of hygiene.

Published: 15/04/2018

Publication Type: Newsletter