Your toothbrush is your friend
I was watching TV the other night right before bed. I usually do a bunch of stretching exercises then, and I often turn on a cable news station to accompany the action (although, come to think of it, that may not be the most relaxing thing to have on in the background while trying to unwind).
While I was changing channels to try to find the best station, my attention was grabbed by an ad for this product, called "Violight," a little gizmo that purports to sterilize your family's toothbrushes through the wonders of UV light.
The commercial (actually, I think it must have been an infomercial--it was long!) featured the usual smiling hosts and satisfied customers, as well as "scientific" proof of how many germs ordinarily live on one's toothbrush, lying in wait like muggers ready to pounce on the unsuspecting users of old, unsterilized, non-Violighted toothbrushes--that is, most of us. Quelle horreur!
We were told just how many bacteria dwell on our innocuous-seeming toothbrushes--nine million? sixteen billion? I forget; the mind boggles. The customers on the infomercial looked properly stunned at the news, and who wouldn't be? They were grateful to have been told about the Violight, and will be sure to use one in the future to safeguard the health of their families.
I'd read about this toothbrush contamination business before. But it always seemed rather bogus to me. Not that I doubt there are plenty of bacteria--and viruses, let's not forget the viruses--on our toothbrushes. But ordinarily, these things come from---our mouths!
Yes, I know it's hard to accept, but our bodies are breeding grounds for bacteria, most of them innocuous, some even beneficial (that's why taking antibiotics can sometimes cause people to come up with yeast infections, or intestinal troubles: the good beasties have been killed off by the drugs, as well as the bad).
There's a book on the subject of bacteria and people that made the deepest of impressions on me back when I first read it in 1969, when it came out: Life on Man by Theodor Rosebury. Despite its so very un-PC title, I never forgot its message (caveat for the squeamish on the following passage):
The figures that [Rosebury] grapples with are quite mind-boggling. For example, he counted 80 distinguishable species living in the mouth alone and estimated that the total number of bacteria excreted each day by an adult to ranges from 100 billion to 100 trillion...From this figure it can be estimated that the microbial density on a square centimeter of human bowel is around 10 billion organisms (1010/cm2) [==> 1.5 x1013 or yielding a total of 15 trillion microbes, based on 2 m2 surface/person].
Microbes inhabit every surface of a healthy adult human that is exposed to the outside, such as the skin, or that is accessible from the outside -- the alimentary canal, from mouth to anus, plus eyes, ears, and the airways.
Rosebury estimates that 50 million individual bacteria live on the average square centimeter (5x107/cm2) of human skin [5x107/cm2 x 20,000 cm2/person = 1011 bacteria], describing the skin surface of our bodies as akin to a "teeming population of people going Christmas shopping."
I'm not sure why Christmas shopping would come to mind, but you get the point: Houston, we've got a lot of bacteria here. And then there are the parasites--but at this point, I'll draw a veil over further discussion of this delicate issue. Sometimes it's best not to look too closely, believe me (for example, I just did a Google search for images of the hair follicle mite that hitches a ride on us all, and concluded that I could not in all good conscience assault my readers with those pictures).
But one thing it is good to know is that most baceria do not harm us, and some actually help us. Not only that, but there's even evidence that exposure to bacteria in early life toughens the system in various ways, such as the reduction in the incidence of asthma.
It seems that people--and even children--were not meant to be free of all bacteria. It's true that advances in hygiene have saved lives, particularly from such contaminated-water-borne diseases as cholera and typhoid. But we have over-corrected when we are afraid of our own toothbrushes; the bacteria that live there, in general, originate within our mouths. As long as we don't share toothbrushes with each other (and even the grungiest of us usually knows better than to do that), I think we're quite safe.
After all, the Violight people have an interest in drumming up fear of contaminated toothbrushes: to make money for themselves. And they're not the only ones; recent decades have seen the rise of two other similarly over-the-top anti-bacterial products: soap and sponges.
Ah, remember those days when a sponge was just a sponge and soap was just soap and a kiss was still a kiss? The fundamental things don't seem to apply as time has gone by: it's actually become somewhat difficult to find non-antibacterial soap or sponges.
There is no need to disinfect ourselves as though we were in an operating theater. But that seems to be the aim of companies who make these products and advertise them, who would dearly love to see us all turned into a bunch of obsessive-compulsives, the perfect consumers.
In pursuit of this goal, the Violight people have mastered the art of the out-of-context quote. Their website features the following, which sounds nicely convincing:
Even after being rinsed visibly clean, toothbrushes can remain contaminated with potentially pathogenic organisms.”
— The Centers for Disease Control, January 2002 report
If one Googles the sentence and finds the original report, it's true that Violight has quoted it correctly. However, let's take a look at the rest of the story [emphasis mine]:
To date, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is unaware of any adverse health effects directly related to toothbrush use, although people with bleeding disorders and those severely immuno-depressed may suffer trauma from tooth brushing and may need to seek alternate means of oral hygiene. The mouth is home to millions of microorganisms (germs). In removing plaque and other soft debris from the teeth, toothbrushes become contaminated with bacteria, blood, saliva, oral debris, and toothpaste. Because of this contamination, a common recommendation is to rinse one’s toothbrush thoroughly with tap water following brushing. Limited research has suggested that even after being rinsed visibly clean, toothbrushes can remain contaminated with potentially pathogenic organisms. In response to this, various means of cleaning, disinfecting or sterilizing toothbrushes between uses have been developed. To date, however, no published research data documents that brushing with a contaminated toothbrush has led to recontamination of a user’s mouth, oral infections, or other adverse health effects.
So, as long as you keep your toothbrush to yourself, don't worry, be happy: brush, rinse, and go forth into the world and meet the day, secure in the knowledge that your toothbrush is not out to get you.