In the late 18th Century, English physician Edward Jenner took an untested (at least in modern research terms) theory and ended up finding a way that led to the eradication of smallpox.
A big part of his hunch toward a vaccine was that milkmaids tended to not get smallpox. The theory was that cowpox, a similar, less lethal virus, did something that, in the end, made the body immune to smallpox. In fact, modern science can tell you exactly why this is the case. As an oversimplification, the body "learns" to fight smallpox by killing the similar cowpox virus.
So today, as you live your life free of smallpox, you should be happy that milkmaids of yore weren't using Purell every time they got done touching an udder.
Would you do the same? I doubt it. My lovely wife wrote a rather humorous blog post on the subject of bathroom habits and it got me thinking... We are flipping nuts. Flushing the toilet with your foot? Washing up like you just left a salmonella factory every time you leave the bathroom?
Humans evolved for tens of thousands of years due to a variety of factors, not the least of which was the fact that they got sick now and then. And got better.
I get a cold or two a year. It bites. I hate them and I go to war against them when they hit. But it's all the colds I contract and don't get that are awesome. Thank you white blood cells. You are a finely-tuned army that knocks out diseases I probably don't even want to know about days before I ever feel a symptom.
And it's true. I sit my cell phone on my desk. It rings. I pick it up... and put it near my mouth! How outrageous. Good thing I have a health insurance plan.
You don't have to look far to find plenty of pieces in peer-reviewed scholarly journals to see there is much debate over the real-world benefits of using antibacterial products around the home. I lack the time to get into finding out the specific research methods used by each of these researchers to even begin to get into the validity of findings.
But I can tell you I started my career riding the NYC subway every day - grasping onto a stainless steel pole with any number of random New Yorkers - and today I fly almost weekly. I wash my hands when they are dirty. I do not use antibacterial much of anything. And I get sick almost never. Maybe I've built up some immunity.
I'm not saying if you wash your hands every time you hit the head you're nuts. And I'm sure there's a person out there who can counter my argument here by saying they used to get sick until they started trying to eliminate any germ they come upon.
But I do think we should be able to stand back and realize that here, in an age of antibiotic resistant bacteria, avian flu panics and the rush to medicate, most of the time, we're breathing in things we'd probably rather not consider.
And we not only get through... but possibly get some benefit from it all.