It's a microbe's life

Land of the free, home of the clean freak -- the latest round of microbial warfare has turned America into a paranoid hot zone.

By Debra Ollivier
Published February 22, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| What's going on? When did America become a nation of Felix Ungers? Something's changed in America, some definite shift in the air. I first noticed it recently when, barely off the plane from Paris at LAX, a friend took me aside and gave me a tiny bottle of Purell Instant Hand Sanitizer. "Best thing since sliced bread," she gushed. The packet promised to "kill 99.9% of the germs that cause diseases," which raises the question why it isn't being air-dropped into third world countries. But OK, I thought. No more sticky grime on my son's hands for lack of a bathroom. I thought the idea was nifty until I noticed my son, who hasn't kicked the habit of sucking index and middle finger, grimace after tasting his freshly sanitized digits. Reading the fine print on the Purell packet made me wonder which was worse: Isopropyl Myristate ("Flammable! Discontinue use if irritation and redness develops. If conditions persists ... call a doctor") or the grubby results of his half-eaten apple.

Purell Hand Sanitizer would have vanished into that part of my brain (larger than I'd care to admit) reserved for inconsequential and time-wasting consumer product tests if I hadn't noticed a spectacular array of new antibacterial soaps, scrubs, sprays, powders, wipes, lotions and swabs on the market. Here are products that promise to sanitize, sterilize, antisepticize, purify, decontaminate. What happened to soap?

There seems to be no escaping imminent and omnipresent public health threats. We're warned by public service announcements that even those things designed to kill microbes can kill us. (Last summer garbage trucks in Los Angeles featured posters of a child's hand reaching for a stray ball with a caption that read: "Ball? Pesticides? Both?"). We grapple with big words and complex vowels that sound like Swedish stereo components or botanical biomass. Acinetocacter Iwoffi. Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Stenotrophomonas maltophilia. We're urged to instantly purify our table water with portable ultraviolet water purifier wands called "Steri-pens." Even the innocuous peach, its fuzz blooming in velvet tufts, is dangerous. My friends have a large bottle of "Fruit and Vegetable Wash" next to their ceramic fruit bowl. "Bacteria can be transferred to fruits and vegetables merely from human handling," it warns. MERELY FROM HUMAN HANDLING. Cleanliness may be close to godliness, but never has its price seemed as high as it does today when fear of microbes, invigorated by a deep national passion for hygiene and a taste for cataclysms (preferably those on a planetary scale), has reached an all-time apex and a commercial saturation point.

Everything, it seems, is vulnerable: our babies, lawns, fruit, cars, dogs, meals, phones, water. Even our computers get viruses. We're so obsessed with them that they've become Hollywood celebrities. Dustin Hoffman fought them in the 1995 film "Outbreak." In the recent film "Virus," Jamie Lee Curtis has it out with a mutating alien life form that must destroy the only threat to its existence: a virus called man. Listen to prime time news and you might reconsider the merits of living in the Mir space station: Listeria in your pastrami. E-Coli in your public pool. Salmonella chickens. Mad cows. National meat recalls. There seems no end to it. We are stalked by bacterial beasts, driving at top speed down microbial superhighways. We are one nation, under siege, indivisible.

Debra Ollivier

Debra Ollivier, a contributor to Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real Life Parenting, is the author of "Entre Nous: A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl." Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper's, Playboy, Le Monde and Les Inrockuptibles.

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