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Alien Nation, Part One
Where is our humanity?

by DK Holland

The marketing of antibacterial products capitalizes on ignorance and fear because we have it in such abundance: In reality, by sterilizing our environment we deplete much of its richness. That’s why biologists urge us to avoid antibacterials in daily life. (Microbes live on handy wipes, by the way). We also overuse sprays to destroy harmless odors created by microbes. Dunn adds, “Any time you smell an odor, you are smelling some kind of microbe.” But smell is the most primal of all our five senses, triggering conscious and unconscious responses. By screwing with our sense of smell we can throw ourselves off balance and become unable to respond to odors the way we need to.

A hundred different insects are apt to be resident inside our living spaces, and many of them are quite primordial looking. Some are so small we just don’t even notice them. And yes, it turns out there may have been (and may still be) monsters living under my bed: dust mites, tiny arthropods with eight hairy legs and sharp pointed pinchers. These monsters gorge on flecks of my dead skin. Instead of leaping into bed, I use a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter in my vacuum to keep the microbe population under control, especially dust mites since their airborne micro feces can trigger allergies and asthma. They may also attach to man-made substances like the toxic gases given off by the cushions or pillows on my couch (by law, toxic flame retardant chemicals are in most couches). I try, however, to distinguish between the good, the bad and the harmless in my home: While there is a remote chance I could find I have bedbugs and an even more remote possibility that a poisonous house spider is lurking in that shoe in the back of my closet, I have become fond of the occasional harmless centipede. While I was terrified by most insects as a kid, I learned to get over this reaction. Now I help a little creature out of the sink if it can’t navigate the slick vertical surface by itself. It’s just a small act of respect for every living thing, no matter how small.

Just before the start of the Great Depression, new drugs like penicillin, a bacteria-killer found in mold, were discovered. This opened up a new era of antibiotics, countless lives were saved—a boon to all of humanity—and of course the pharmaceutical industry. Antibiotics have come to be used irresponsibly by the meat and poultry industries. They get passed on to us as we consume their meat products. Ironically, as a result of the many courses of antibiotics ingested, injected or unwittingly absorbed by most of us during our lives, we’ve become less resistant to pathogens. We have also become aware that when we relieve ourselves, we flush antibiotics down our toilets that wend their way into our general water supplies, polluting and mutating aquatic life. We all know people with allergies, asthma, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and intestinal disorders. We may also know people who have schizo-phrenia or autism. All of these are “new diseases” that first appeared just as antibiotics became popular. Antibiotics wipe out essential bacteria and parasites hanging around in our intestines. For instance, serotonin is created by pathogenic amoebas in our gut. It is a natural anti-depressant, major stress reliever, memory, mood and happiness enhancer. Without serotonin, our stress (real or imagined) increases, distorting the way we think, breeding mistrust, wearing us down. By embracing antibiotics indiscriminately, we solved one problem while creating a couple of dozen others.

We are human but most of our bodies’ cohabitants and partners are microbes. Our irrational brains are screaming, “Kill them!” while our immune systems are cautioning us to “hold on to them.” Were we to wipe out our bacteria, we would be dead. End of story. General practitioners, who are aware of nutrition, and naturopathic doctors recommend that a course of antibiotics is best followed by daily doses of billions and billions of live bacteria—probiotics—germs! Bring back those good microbes!

For three hundred million years we hosted tiny worms that chewed on our intestines producing a medicine that calmed down our gut. About one hundred years ago industrialist John D. Rockefeller sent a team of researchers to the South to figure out why his workers were not being productive. They observed that the workers were pale and listless. They saw hookworms crawling on the ground where these barefooted men typically defecated. While they realized the worms reentered the men through the soles of their feet, they also saw that the worms could only crawl a distance of four feet before dying. And so the outhouse (with a six-foot hole beneath) was invented and the war on hookworms began. This was yet another a major boon to humanity. The installation of proper latrines all over the South cut back dramatically on many diseases. But, of course, we had no idea the eradication of hookworms would allow all these “new” diseases to emerge.

Jasper Lawrence was a severe allergy sufferer until he traveled to a rural area of Africa just to reinfect himself with hookworms a few years ago. He had realized that allergies (and other “new” diseases) were rare in developing countries that still have hookworms (and of course, no latrines). Lawrence has since made a business of providing a small number of his own personal (purified) hookworms for a hefty fee to other desperate people. The idea of hosting worms may make the skin crawl, but Lawrence has many satisfied customers. Fecal transplants are also an option and are found to be effective. While these procedures may make some people squeamish, there are few alternatives for many sufferers. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.