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Getting the Odds Down to .01 Percent: The Satisfying American War on Bacteria

Getting the Odds Down to .01 Percent: The Satisfying American War on Bacteria
July 06
06:13 2015


Steve Blow bonged the alarm about useless germ warfare in his Dallas News column. “We’ve become a nation of germophobes,” he wrote. “And our health may be suffering because of it.” Health, in this case, is not only physical, but social and mental.

“But who’s Steve Blow?” you will ask. “DDA never quoted Steve Blow before.” Well, it doesn’t matter unless he owes you a lot of money. But there are many Steve Blows. I know of at least six across the country, so be careful to find the right one. This Steve Blow, however, reminded me of the senseless war on germs.

Who sold it to us in the first place is a good subject, but to broach the topic with all you sanitation junkies requires hitting the proper notes nestled between bland storytelling and lecturing.

For me it was the castigation from a steady-eyed child standing in the doorway of a mosque in San Bernardino that showed me how neurotic my life had become with this germ warfare obsession. It was like God’s very own nightstick had thumped me across the back of the thigh.

But how had this neurosis begun, and why does it seem so satisfying to so many of us?


It’s been a long time since America won a war, but that hasn’t stopped its lawmakers and media outlets from declaring war on everything society finds ill-fitting. The constant aggressive rhetoric toward everything from drugs to poverty I’ve grown up with my whole life has indoctrinated the general population, and it seems the most satisfying outlet for the common man to engage in his own campaign of seeking and destroying is to aim his unsettled inner hostility at germs.

Sanitizer_microbesFor the general populace, this is a smart do-it-yourself, comfortable-at-home war, and waging it scratches a perpetual itch in the messy nerve endings of the brain like nothing else can.

You can’t see germs, but after absorbing the right kind of television education this country relies on every day, you can sense wherever they’re hiding. Your skin learns to do a special crawl in the presence of unseen bacteria blooming and bustling into metropolises spreading as an interconnected infrastructure of filth and grime that can spring up just hours after you’ve bleached and buffed your bathtub.

Of course, more than one column, essay, and book have been written about our obsession with so-called clean living, and how we’ve been led into it like cattle, like just about every other social and cultural lifestyle we adhere to.

“Advertisers did not invent a notion of cleanliness out of a vacuum, but they did cannily tap into anxieties wrought by social upheavals in the early 20th century,” explains an article about a book called The Dirt on Clean. For example, if you’re not married, it’s probably because your breath stinks and your armpits sweat too much and your hair is ugly without some sort of pomade rubbed into it. You’re lucky, though, because there’s a cure for all of those maladies you didn’t know you had. And if you use the right products generously you’ll be closer to true peace and happiness.

I know you think you’re too smart for that kind of loose advertising manipulation. But maybe you’re not. You might not be aware of the emotional hook most ads deploy when your brain drops into the alpha wave state while your glazed eyes take in another worthless football game or a dramatic event between characters that doesn’t really exist.

It’s called a ‘signal device’, and it’s why you reach for the brand name product on the shelf without realizing it.

What we see on TV as a mass audience turns into a lifestyle. That lifestyle is sold at the stores, and for an unbelievably affordable price. The way of life becomes normal and sane, and anyone living outside of that is potentially weird, dangerous, or suspicious.

So the anxious hygiene obsessed living sneaks up on a person.

One day you realize you’re eyeballing every restaurant table, door handle, and shopping cart with the same gravity with which a doctor gets in close and squints through his magnifying glass at an aberrant mole or freckle you swear is gathering mass. You find yourself feeling generally disgusting until you get home, to your own sterilized laboratory with hand sanitizers, antibacterial soaps, microfiber mops and rags, rubbing alcohol, toilet and tub scrubs, and bottles of bleach.

The germs are everywhere. Without that bottle of sanitizer, it’s life or death or out there.


I too have implemented a dizzying regimen of hygiene and caution when it comes to bacteria. The most notable difference in my life was the introduction of hydrogen peroxide to my kitchen. I won’t eat another raw fruit or vegetable without blasting all corners, contours, and crevices with peroxide. It’s a cheap solution to waging one’s own microbial holocaust before whipping up a delicious kale, apple, blueberry, banana smoothie or gnawing on raw carrots and broccoli like a mangy California black-tailed jackrabbit.

For most modern Americans, hydrogen peroxide isn’t necessary as there is no room in the average diet for raw fruits and vegetables. The frozen dinners and packaged foods sealing in the chemicals and preservatives aren’t a place any living cell wishes to hang. It’s like trying to start a colony on the toxic cyanide surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan.


The paranoia with bacteria is just another excuse for a money-making, good old American, Western Civilization war. But now we can’t be sure if we’d ever want to go back to looser living with germs. The worse part is the shifty nature of bacteria. How can we tell the good from the bad? It’s better to annihilate them all. That’s the American way. And in 2015, it’s pretty much the only way.

Sure, the conscience nags a little when you kick start that well-orchestrated and heavily weaponized kitchen campaign with a full coverage air assault on every counter top that maybe even CNN might like to get footage of for its 24-hour coverage. At least one hour of coverage could go toward discussing how well-stocked the average American cleaning arsenal is.

Similar to how the soldiers forced to undergo training drills with live nuclear bomb detonations, you too, Household General, must keep watch on what way the wind is blowing. Death agents do not discriminate. Sometimes their malicious effects are postponed.

To cover up the smell of war, there is the toxic chemical called phthalates, otherwise known on the package as “fragrances”. Another is perchloroethylene, which is a neurotoxin for you, but will clean your carpet, too. You’ll find triclosan in your arsenal as well. It’s in your hand and dish soaps. It nails most bacteria, but the cunning, obstinate types have evolved well beyond triclosan’s capacity. The chemical is also a carcinogen.

The list could go on for pages.

If you’re of the more sensitive humans who like to reflect, it’s not difficult to imagine the groaning and moaning of millions of unsuspecting prokaryotic microorganisms suffering from severe chemical burns. For them, the fire fell swiftly from the air. Rods and spheres and spirals strewn about the colony. The carnage is horrendous. With the right kind of lenses, it would be the kind of news feed CNN was built for.

Combined with a stringent lemon scent, these mental scenes can be cathartic for the homeowner.

Some will argue that more than three-quarters of those microorganisms were good, productive members of their colony. More importantly, necessary to interconnected life on the planet. But the rest of us will argue by saying, Who cares? We can’t see them, but they’re gross. They are germs. Sickness is bad. No germs is good. And, by the way, we will argue, what kind of good bacteria hang around bad combatant bacteria, anyway? Any living organism in the general area of assault will be considered guilty.

This is not a strange policy for the wholesale slaughter of living beings. It’s the same policy the White House uses when they blow up villages and marketplaces in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq.

The end result is simple, but the formula of the sparkling bottle of cleaner is not simple, nor are the brilliant minds that come together to orchestrate the products, but there’s no reason to worry, because all you need to know, whether it’s American foreign policy or Scrubs ‘N Bubbles Bathroom & Kitchen Cleaner, is that 99.9% of the bacteria, 99.9% of the germs, are disintegrated. It’s not your job to sort through what damage might have been done.

Never mind that .01%, either. Nobody can guarantee perfection. Not in times like ours. It’s that .01% that keeps us up at night if we can’t distract ourselves from it. It pervades every other aspect of our lives. It’s just enough to keep us in line, stepping eagerly through the TSA body scanners and getting fingers dipped below our belts to search for bin Ladens here and there, with always the possibility of being in somebody’s underwear.

But, you still do the best you can to keep every inch of your life sterile and risk-free.


For example.

I was at the mosque the other night for the evening prayer and extended Ramadan prayers. I left early. On my way out, beside the door, was a box half full of the juiciest dates I’d ever seen. They were almost twinkling under the entrance lights.

I picked up the fattest one. Brown and squishy, lightly sticky. I’d been fasting since sunrise, and tearing into a date is one of the most satisfying ways to break the fast. But the old cautiousness set in.

What if there are germs on it? I thought. What if somebody already fingered this date but put it back? Never mind asking why they would do that. What if they had? Or had dropped it and put it back in the box? Or if one of the young boys running around the parking lot had sneezed on them.

Screw it, I thought. I nearly bit into it.

But what about the workers? Who knew the conditions under which the immigrants were forced to work. I’d seen plenty of immigrants hoeing sugar beet fields in North Dakota as a boy. They didn’t have restrooms and toilet paper, running water and soap. They defecated in the field. How did they clean themselves afterward? What’s to say the workers tending the endless rows of date trees breathing heavy in the Californian desert worked under any better circumstances?

I rolled the plump date between thumb and forefinger. Could there be fecal matter on it? Next to the shoe rack was a drinking fountain.

Outside the young boys were playing a game in the dark and running after each other while their fathers prayed. They squealed like girls. I thought about teasing them as such, but didn’t. Not in our sensitive times. I could be accused of gender-shaming, or cited by Code Pink or Media Matters for upholding rigid gender roles.

I held the big date next to the drinking fountain’s spout and let the water run over it. It wasn’t hydrogen peroxide, but at least it was clean water. I used my thumb to scrub each surface, along the ridges, and especially at the flattened end where it had been plucked from the tree.

From where the boy came, I don’t know. I didn’t hear any footsteps.

Inside the mosque I could hear the imam reciting the moving passages of the Qur’an. Timelessness and ease; knowing one’s place in the most infinite and eternal of impossible to understand realities, but instead of resisting, flowing with it.

Against the warm San Bernardino air and the excitement of chewing into the lush, sweet fibers of the date, I felt a comfort in the heart and mind, like being a drop of water in the ocean and being content with that. Rather than trying to be the ocean, or trying to fight it, be submissive to reality and acquire the traits to be the best drop you can imagine.

The boy I thought would walk past me and mind his business. But he didn’t. He stared at me, then squared up to me. He was probably younger than 1o years. Pakistani descent, it seemed. His brown eyes narrowed. “That water’s for drinking,” he said.

I stopped washing the date. I glanced behind me, feeling like maybe I’d committed a crime. “I know,” I said and smiled. I thought to tease the boy, ask him, “What, do you work for Governor Jerry Brown? Are you the southern California water czar?”

But the boy’s stiff lips and steady eyes withered my smile. Without words he told me that no, I didn’t know it was for drinking only, otherwise why would I be doing what I was doing?

“Is there any hydrogen peroxide around here?” I asked him. “Or do you people just risk it with these dates?”

The boy stood by the water fountain and watched me leave. I resisted the date until I got home. To give it a good, germ-withering scrub.

[Hand sanitizer photo from Tokumeigakarinoaoshima; Le Microbe image from Wellcome Images]


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