Lava bacteria and germy soap pumps?
I don’t often watch adverts, but every now and again, I’ll see one that annoys me so much that I actively seek it out. The culprit this time: Dettol, and their two recent adverts for for Complete Clean, and their “No Touch” handwash system.
I’d like to first address Complete Clean, as, to be honest, it’s Complete Rubbish. It opens with a bold declaration – “Fact: some bacteria are almost indestructible. They can even survive in lava”. Well, this is undeniably true. A number of organisms have been discovered living (and thriving) in temperatures previously thought to be hostile to all life; they are known as hyperthermophiles. They were first discovered in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park (in 1969), and since then, have been found in (and on) several other environments, such as deep sea hydrothermal vents. Organisms in this class have been known to survive temperatures of up to 130 degrees Celsius, and some have even been able to reproduce in environments heated to 122 degrees Celcius (e.g. Methanopyrus kandleri). This statement is made over what appears to be a close-up of some bubbling lava, but what is then revealed to actually be a spill on a stove-top, and it’s at this point that Dettol begin to engage in something I like to call not-quite-false advertising – “Fact: some bacteria are almost indestructible. They can even survive in lava, so think how easily the bacteria in your kitchen could survive.” Holy nonsense! I’d better run out and buy some cleaning products right now to protect my loved ones and children! Or, maybe I could just turn off my stove, since hyperthermophiles thrive in hot environments, such as those of 60 degrees Celcius and above, so unless I’m running my stove constantly, and in the vicinity of a hot spring, I’m probably ok.
There are numerous laws in place to prevent companies from lying when advertising their products, so instead, several companies seem to be resorting to this not-quite-lying. Granted, it’s true that there are bacteria that can survive in lava. And it’s also true that bacteria can survive in my kitchen. To link the two facts, however, while not technically lying, is about as close to lying as you can get. As I’m unlikely to start cooking with lava any time soon, the likelyhood of my kitchen becoming infested with hyperthermophiles is extremely low (M. kandleri can only survive in anaerobic conditions, for example!), and even if it were to become infested with them, there’s no proof that they are more harmful than any other organism which I might find in my kitchen. The fact that hyperthermophiles exist has no impact on the existence of common kitchen bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and other such organisms, particularly since most of these organisms could not co-exist in the same environment (Salmonella being unable to survive after an hour at 55 degrees C, for example). In truth, linking the two makes as much sense as declaring that “Black bears enjoy eating honey; think of the damage bee stings could do to your children!” It’s not technically false advertising, but it is blatantly manipulative, and at its heart, dishonest.
I might be temped to call this campaign a fluke, or a one-off, if I hadn’t then seen the numerous advertisements for the new “no touch” hand washing system, which will enable your adorable little darlings to handle all sorts of scary things like frogs and normal household waste, and then wash their hands, all without having to touch a “germy soap pump”. Now, before I even begin to examine the science behind this silliness, I can’t help but point out the most obvious flaw in this advertisement – they are touching the germy soap pump immediately prior to washing their hands. It wouldn’t matter if the germy soap pump was liberally coated in raw chicken fillets and puppy excrement, because immediately after touching it, they will be removing any potential contamination by washing their hands. This, surely, is a sensible enough reason for most to leave this expensive and nonsensical product on the shelf. If not, we’ll examine some of the facts they present as part of the advertisement.
“Fact: Your soap pump can harbour hundreds of bacteria”. Well, once again, that’s undeniably true. A soap pump, like any surface, may harbour bacteria if the conditions are right. Those bacteria are most likely to be kitchen and bathroom bacteria (since these are the places where one is likely to place a soap pump), and as such, are likely to include our old reliable Salmonella and E. coli, as well as some new favourites such as Shigella and Cholera. Who would want to touch a soap pump laden with such disease causing bacteria? Well, someone about to wash their hands, since hand washing has been shown to effectively curb the spread of all of the above conditions by effectively removing the bacteria from the hands, and thus preventing transmission. A soap pump may harbour bacteria, but so may any number of surfaces in a typical house. Basic hygiene practices will effectively prevent infection by those bacteria, so long as, after you touch the “germy soap pump”, you use the soap you’ve pumped to wash your hands. At the end of the ad, we’re treated to a scene where a mother kisses a child’s (hopefully clean) hand – don’t they know how dangerous “germy mom mouth” is?!
Humans are, for the most part, pretty robust. We have reasonably effective immune systems which, over time, build up immunity to any number of common illnesses – this is why vaccinations are effective, and it is why we have been able to almost eradicate some diseases altogether; it is why being exposed to common bacteria in childhood is important. By the time we enter adulthood, we have immunity to most common bacteria, and knowledge of the hygiene practices that will keep us safe from the rest, but companies like Dettol are changing that. There is increasing evidence that children who are living in over-sterilised environments are missing the opportunity to develop these basic immunities through a lack of exposure to the bacteria in question, and this may be linked to a rise in a number of autoimmune diseases. Of course you should wash your hands after preparing raw chicken, but if your child is crawling on the floor, there’s probably no need to sterilise the entire surface for fear of lava bacteria. Go on, live dangerously – touch the germy soap pump.