Sunday, 12 July 2009

Should Everything Be So Spic And Span And Pretty?

The other day while travelling by train, a lady sitting next to me started complaining (to the man she was travelling with) how dirty the train was. ‘Why don’t the cleaners do a better job?’ she asked.

To me, the train didn’t seem to be particularly dirty. True there were a few specks of dust on the windows and the seats, but there wasn’t any dirt that was visible to my eye. The bins were not overflowing, rather they had just been emptied, and there was no litter scattered on the floor. Did the lady expect the cleaners to vacuum the windows and the seats during the thirty minutes or so when the train rested at London Waterloo before starting its journey back to Bournemouth? I wondered.

The lady supplied the answer to my thoughts when she told her travel companion, ‘they ought to spray everything with disinfectant at least every alternate day.’

I think the woman’s travel companion was as much fussed about cleanliness as I was, and he gave the woman a tolerant and amused smile. I had visions of travelling in a train where everything was spotlessly clean and smelt of anti-bacterial disinfectant, like a hospital ward. I shook my head to get rid of that image. I much rather have a little bit of dust and dirt around me rather than the smell of disinfectant in my nostrils. Surely not all bacteria are harmful? Some of the microbes that are killed off by spraying disinfectants are bound to be the useful ones.

The woman’s comments had me thinking. Are we, at least in parts of the world which have achieved a relative degree of economic prosperity, moving towards unnecessary cleanliness? The sort of nitpicky and fussy cleanliness that only damages the environment and causes global warming? No, I am not a scientist and don’t have technical knowledge of chemicals, but I do know that spraying disinfectants causes global warming. No, don’t ask me how, but I know.

I have friends (mainly English) who will not drink water from a tap, even though tap water is potable almost everywhere here. In the almost seven years I have lived in England, I have always drunk tap water and have never suffered as a result of it. If it were up to me, I’d ban bottled water wherever potable water is freely available, as Bundanoon, a rural Australian town has recently done.

I know of people who will always carry tissues with them just in case they are in a ‘dirty’ place. I know of one chap who avoids shaking hands with people as much as he can just in case they pass on something dirty.

There are lot more allergies in the developed world than in the third world. Even in the ‘west’, people have allergies that were unheard of till thirty years ago. ‘Nut allergy’ is so very common in the UK and other western countries that practically all food products contain a warning regarding this. Most people hadn’t heard of this allergy till a few decades ago.

There was this interesting study conducted in what was once East Germany, which showed that prior to unification with West Germany, East Germans had lower rates of allergies. Apparently after the merger, East Germany became cleaner and neater and less polluted and the people living there consequently became a lot more finicky, which caused an increase in allergies.

It is a proven fact that exposing children to dogs, cats and other animals at a young age reduces their chances of developing common allergies.

Within the developed world, the Japanese are supposed to be the fussiest of the lot, when it comes to (unnecessary) cleanliness.

Most flats in the west prohibit residents from hanging their washing on balconies. In the Australian state of New South Wales, one may even end up in jail. It is a fact that flats cease to look very smart if festooned with washing like a Christmas tree. But in a cold climate, it takes an unbelievable amount of electricity to tumble dry clothes. Many people who live in flats dry their clothes on stands kept in front of radiators, a practice which increases humidity inside the flat drastically.

However, there are certain aspects of hygiene and cleanliness where the West ought to be emulated by the developing world, even if it adds to gaia’s burden. For example, in all the ‘developed’ countries, people dispose of their garbage in plastic garbage bags, which usually aren’t biodegradable. The garbage is collected in special vans or trucks that take them to landfills or in some cases to recycling centres. In most developing countries, garbage is left in the open, is picked up by trucks or manual collectors, who carry it away exposed to the elements and dump in at vacant sites. In the developed world, the use of garbage bags and special collection trucks does add to the damage cause to the environment. However, I would say that such use is justified since it reduces the spread of disease. One only has to see the poor state of garbage collection and disposal in the third world to realise how important it is to collect and dispose of garbage in a hygienic manner. Of course, it would be great if bio-degradable garbage bags that are not too expensive could be made available all over the world.

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