Eat dirt, kids will exclaim, as a taunting insult to each other. Many parents will chase toddlers around the outdoors trying to keep them from doing exactly that. But new research, as published in the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine, offers a new view of the value of kids’ early exposure to certain kinds of grime.
Based on scrutiny of allergies in children of the Amish in Indiana and the Hutterites in South Dakota, exposure to farm dirt, specifically the microbes it contains, possibly from farm animals, may boost kids’ immune systems, helping them to avoid chronic conditions like asthma that are becoming more common and severe.
The Amish and Hutterites both trace their ancestry to Central Europe, and both groups have remained isolated from wider populations since immigrating to the United States. Neither smoke; their diets are similar; they both keep spotless homes. They both farm, but do so very differently. The Amish stick to basic, traditional agriculture on small dairy farms and by sowing seeds by hand, using horses, and keeping cattle in barns nearby. The Hutterites rely on tractors to cultivate big, modern, communal farms, where animals are kept far away from homes and in hangar-sized barns.
When researchers compared the health of kids in the two groups, their allergies stood out: Few Amish youngsters had asthma, while many more Hutterites did. Experts studied dust in the homes of both groups, finding loads of bacterial debris in samples from the Amish but less so in those from the Hutterites. When they exposed mice to Hutterite dust, the animals had severe respiratory responses; this did not occur when mice breathed Amish dust.
The experts theorize that microbes in the Amish dirt, and the youngsters’ frequent exposure to it, early on and throughout their childhoods, somehow boosts their immune systems, and especially helps to protect them from allergies and asthma. The researchers say they need to do more work before they identify the exact protective elements in Amish dirt.
But the theory that Western societies, especially, may harm kids’ health by overemphasizing cleanliness, has gained increasing support as asthma rates, in particular, have soared. As the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported:
Asthma is a leading chronic illness among children and adolescents in the United States. It is also one of the leading causes of school absenteeism. On average, in a classroom of 30 children, about 3 are likely to have asthma. Low-income populations, minorities, and children living in inner cities experience more emergency department visits, hospitalizations, and deaths due to asthma than the general population.
By the way, the study on the Amish and Hutterite children did not involve large numbers, and further research already is under way. Experts aren’t expecting entrepreneurs to scoop up Hoosier farm dirt and to begin hyping it any time soon, though they have said they think one day there might be protective sprays from it.