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Don’t Listen to Pete Hegseth About Handwashing

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety,Our Blog on February 20, 2019

We’ve seen all kinds of crazy over here at Make Food Safe, but this one is new: Pete Hegseth, a regular contributor to Fox News and op-ed writer for various conservative publications, hasn’t washed his hands in a decade. To start off our post on the right foot (no pun intended), don’t listen to Pete Hegseth about handwashing!!

Face Palm

That’s what he said, at least. The comments were interpreted as literal and kicked off a minor media firestorm, although we can only hope that Hegseth meant them in jest. Speaking on the show Fox & Friends Weekend, where he works as a co-host, Hegseth laid out his supposed hygiene habits in what was either a Kaufman-level deadpan or a new low for common sense and scientific literacy on television.

“I don’t think I’ve washed my hands for 10 years,” he said, citing a New Year’s resolution to say the things on television that he says off air. “Really, I don’t really wash my hands ever. I inoculate myself. Germs are not a real thing. I can’t see them. Therefore, they’re not real. I can’t get sick.”

First of all, let’s get this out of the way: this writer figures that Hegseth was probably joking. At least I hope he is. He certainly sounded sarcastic. He’s indicated as much during the aftermath, and I figure that he probably doesn’t actually reject the germ theory of medicine.

Germs Are Real, People

To move to the next obvious point: germs are real. I’ve seen them through the microscope myself. Microbes too small to be seen are only too small to be seen until you use a bit of magnification to look for them, at which point you realize that they’re everywhere. Germs aren’t a conspiracy that’s been foisted on you by Big Pharma to sell medicine. They’re the only way to make sense of various infectious diseases.

Some ancient theories of health are compelling in their own way; I, for one, appreciate the elegant simplicity of the notion that our well-being and personality is determined by the balance of the four humors. The four humors can’t explain the way that infectious disease affects individuals, however, and they similarly cannot account for the way that those infectious diseases are transmitted through populations. This should be obvious, but there’s currently a measles outbreak in Washington state due to alarming resistance to vaccination, so in these times the obvious is perhaps worth restating.

Hegseth’s comments, however silly, also raise an interesting implication. When he says that he “inoculates himself” and “can’t get sick” because he doesn’t wash his hands, he’s gesturing at a seemingly counterintuitive: our immune systems come to recognize threats through exposure, and overly sterile environments might actually be bad for us in the long run.

Immunity 101

Here’s a very abbreviated layman’s version of how our immune systems work: when a specific threat (an antigen) is encountered, some of our white blood cells change themselves into “memory” cells. Those memory cells live for a long time and are closely matched to the antigen which sparked their formation. If they encounter that antigen again, they’re fitted to it as a key is to a lock, and they’ll spark a full-on immune response.

These memory cells, as the name implies, function as a kind of memory for our immune system. They help it to recall and respond quickly and appropriately to pathogens that it’s dealt with before. Without our memory cells, we could be re-infected with the same diseases over and over again, and our bodies would be effectively clueless as how to respond each times. With the benefit of our memory cells, however, we enjoy increased immunity to many different illnesses after we’ve been exposed to them the first time.

That’s the short and dirty version of how our immune systems remember things. Now, the implication: low-level exposure to germs might help our immune systems to recognize those germs in the future without giving said germs enough of a foothold to actually make us sick. This is the basic principle behind vaccination; using a weakened or deactivated version of a virus, we can train the immune system to recognize said virus, which subsequently lends us immunity to it.

So, in a sense, Hegseth is sort of right. You might be able to inoculate yourself by exposing your immune system to a few germs here and there. Some studies have similarly indicated that kids who grow up on farms have fewer allergies than kids who grew up in the cities. One explanation for that phenomenon is that the immune responses of city kids are hindered by lack of exposure to natural environments. Farm kids interact with animals, run around in natural milleus, and might spend their early days eating dirt; city kids, on the other hand, have limited contact with livestock, grow up surrounded by steel and concrete, and might not have access to dirt to eat.

It bears mentioning once again that we here at Make Food Safe don’t think you should abandon hand-washing in hopes of improving your immune system. Hegseth’s comments have a grain of truth, but wantonly exposing yourself to different pathogens will probably just make you sick. Best to leave the deliberate inoculation to medical professionals and stick to a disciplined hand-washing regiment.

As for how to wash your hands: we recommend at least twenty seconds with hot water and plenty of soap. Be sure to get lots of friction going on and cover the backs of your hands and the spaces between your fingers. There are different schools of thought about the best hand-washing technique; we find that rubbing them together like a greedy villain in an old-timey cartoon works well (imagine you are Scrooge McDuck and you’ve just seen a pile of money big enough to turn your eyes into dollar signs).

By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)