2006.06.21 You dirty rat, you

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Whenever I read anything about what’s known as the “hygiene hypothesis” of allergies, I think about my son, Ben, and the carpenter ant incident.

Ben was sitting on the floor of the apartment above the Observer and I was washing dishes. I don’t know how old he was at the time. Young enough not to know better, unlike his father who was definitely old enough to know better.

I spotted a big, black carpenter ant crawling across the floor. I wonder what those things taste like, I said aloud. Ants and other insects are eaten in some cultures around the world. Around here they have to first be dipped in chocolate, preferably a good dark chocolate.

I wasn’t really suggesting that Ben eat the ant and I really didn’t expect him to try it. Well, maybe there was a chance that he would. He was an adventuresome kid who seemed to enjoy new challenges.

He did it and I couldn’t stop him. Once I saw him pick it up and I watched the hand move toward the mouth, I was curious to know what he thought about it.

And he’s never had allergies, rheumatoid arthritis or any other autoimmune diseases since that day.

There’s a new study out that supports the hygiene hypothesis—that dirty toddlers become healthy toddlers, or something like that.

The thing that’s caught researchers’ attention over the years is the observation that allergy and asthma rates are higher in the cleaner, industrialized regions of the world compared to less developed regions such as Africa.

Just typing that last sentence raises a red flag. Cleaner and industrialized? Maybe researchers need to look at how clean industrialized areas are. Isn’t there a dirty air/asthma connection?

But back to the theory. Youngsters who are allowed to mess around in the dirt—perhaps chew on the occasional ant—are less likely to be bothered by allergies. The argument is that exposure to the natural environment early on trains the body to respond properly to harmless microbes and pollen. The proper response is pretty much to ignore it and not get all worked up with sneezing and running nose, etc.

In other words, Western civilization has become too sterile. Not enough dirt.

That didn’t seem to be a problem for my kids. We never met industrialized cleanliness standards. We had a sandbox and pets. A little swimming pool flavored with grass clippings, bird droppings, dirt, food and whatever was tracked in. We made a lot of trips to Bean Creek. Lots of little injuries to allow the introduction of microbes.

There were days when the kids had to be hosed down in the yard before they could even enter the house. With a source of water and a yard that failed to meet the standards of Western civilization, there was never a shortage of mud.

The interesting thing about the new study is that it didn’t involve humans at all. It was all about rats. The lead scientist, from Duke University, was joined by his younger colleagues in collecting 58 wild rats, along with a few wild mice.

The rodents were killed and blood was extracted. Lab rats, who led a brief but clean life, were also knocked off and their blood was drawn. The blood samples were compared and the wild stuff showed much higher levels of antibodies that are produced in response to foreign particles.

The immune cells of the lab rats went crazy when stimulated by the scientists. They’d grown too cushy and any little thing set them off. The lab rat cells, on the other hand, didn’t seem to give a darn. It took a lot to get them going.

For his next project, the scientist intends to build a 50-foot artificial sewer. He wants to dump lab rats inside and see how they react to the real world of filth.

As usual, rats will take the fall for humans if everything goes right. Researchers hope to figure out the good filth of life and have kids eat that—and maybe throw in a few ants for seasoning.

– June 21, 2006
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