Phil Gulley: Germ Warfare

Wondering why kids have so many allergies these days? Blame it on an outbreak of cleanliness.

I was thinking the other day about the things that have changed since I was little, and I realized it has been years since I’ve seen a grubby kid. I see kids every day in Danville, just not grubby ones. When I was growing up, children had dirt everywhere—in the folds of their necks, circling their mouths, anywhere grime could form a crust. Most parents didn’t mind, knowing that resistance was futile. Of course, children took baths before going to church or visiting their aunt, but otherwise parents were content to hose them off once a week and leave it at that.

Then parents started having fewer children, and like anything scarce, they grew in value. Adults began dressing their kids more neatly, filling them with antibiotics, and washing them with antibacterial soap until they grew soft and fat from staying indoors where it was clean and safe. Except now we’ve gone too far, and the average child has the fortitude of a gnat. I was talking recently with a woman who mentioned her daughter was allergic to bees and would curl up and die if she were stung. Every third child I meet these days is allergic to bees and is moments from death. When I was growing up, only one kid in our town was allergic to bees: a boy named James, who asked to be called James, not Jim or Jimmy. So naturally we tied him to a beehive. He was stung a zillion times, built up an immunity to bee stings, and was fine from then on.

This conversation arose because I don’t spray my yard with chemicals to kill the clover, and therefore I have lots of bees. The woman believed my yard posed a hazard to her child and suggested I kill off the clover so the bees would leave. Bees have been up against it lately, dying in record numbers, so I’m not inclined to boot them out. I suggested she tie her daughter to a beehive to see if that might help.

If kids aren’t allergic to bees, they’re allergic to peanuts. I can’t remember one kid being allergic to peanuts when I was young, so this is a new thing. It turns out peanuts are everywhere—in candy, peanut butter, pancake mix, egg rolls, hot sauce, pudding. Which means people with peanut allergies are constantly worrying about inadvertently eating one. Companies put warning stickers on the food they sell: “Our food may contain peanut products.” Yes, that is precisely why I bought that jar of peanut butter, hoping it might contain peanut products.

Between 1997 and 2008, the number of kids in the United States with peanut allergies more than tripled. It has become something of a fad, and it’s time we did something about it. If we gave every 2-year-old a peanut butter–and-jelly sandwich, they’d develop an immunity to peanuts, and we’d be done with the allergy for good. Then we could serve the legume on airplanes again, instead of pretzels, which I’ve never cared for.

In fact, we could save ourselves a lot of trouble if we sent children outside barefoot, in a field of clover, while eating a PB&J, like parents did when I was a runt. I can’t cite a specific moment, but sometime in the past 40 years, the obsession with cleanliness began, and kids started dropping like flies. Children need dirt, dander, and dog hair to flourish, which is why they’re instinctively drawn to such things.

Even science is on the side of dirt. A 2012 study contends our homes are so clean that children are no longer exposed to the germs they once were, which doesn’t permit their immune systems to develop, hence the rise in allergies. But there’s one group of children managing to avoid this: the Amish. Amish children run around without shoes, step in horse manure, and are never sick a day in their lives. Well, almost never. Mennonites (a related faith) are prone to a disorder called maple syrup urine disease. It’s hard to believe something that has the words “maple syrup” in it can be bad for you, but the condition can be fatal. If your kid’s pee smells like maple syrup, he’s either been eating lots of pancakes or has maple syrup urine disease. You thought I was insensitive for suggesting you tie your kid to a beehive, but I hope you have a higher opinion of me now that I’ve warned you about the dangers of evoking Mrs. Butterworth’s.

There’s anecdotal evidence to support the benefits of filth, too. When I was 5, a boy named Mark moved in next door to us. He was pale and sickly, and his bones snapped like dried grass. He was an only child and the sole recipient of his mother’s attention, as she followed him around with a wet washcloth, bent on keeping him clean. On the first day of school, he ate a piece of chalk.

“Mark’s eating chalk,” I told our teacher, Mrs. Mann.

“It’s good for his bones,” Mrs. Mann said, handing him another piece of chalk.

By Christmas, Mark was fit as a fiddle. When we returned from break, Mark began eating dirt during recess.

“Mark’s eating dirt,” I told Mrs. Mann.

“A little dirt never hurt anyone,” she said.

By spring, Mark was the strongest kid in our class and could bench-press Mrs. Mann.

Our son Spencer and his wife, Jessica, live on a farm in Hendricks County. Every night, they carry our granddaughter to the barn to see the baby pigs. Barns aren’t hygienic, so at first, I was concerned about germs.

“Spencer and Jessica take Madeline to the barn every night and let her kiss a baby pig,” I told my wife.

“That’s nice,” she said. “Pigs are sweet.”

My wife was once like modern parents in that she wouldn’t let our sons anywhere near a pig. But now our granddaughter makes out with one, and she isn’t fazed.

“Don’t you think that’s disgusting?” I said.

“Pigs are known for cleanliness,” she said. Shades of Mrs. Mann.

My granddaughter also likes to nap draped over the dog, Hank, her nose buried in his fur. Hank visits the barn twice a day to round up the pigs so Spencer can feed them. There’s no telling what’s on his fur, but it’s safe to say that whatever it is, my granddaughter won’t be allergic to it.


This article appeared in the September 2015 Issue.