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A Plague of Germ-Free Products Hits Retail Shelves

July 30, 1997

Even decorative garnishes for box lunches are available in an antibacterial version. (Photo: Kyodo)

It means "antibacterial effect," but the recent Japanese buzzword "kokin koka" probably has as much to do with marketing as with medicine. Over the past two to three years, main-street retail counters have been flooded with germ-free products, from personal items to domestic appliances and metallurgy base materials, as manufacturers find they can make money out of the desire of young consumers to be as clean as possible. But experts warn of impaired resistance to everyday germs and other problems such as mysophobia, a severe fear of coming into contact with dirt, if things go too far.

Clean Homes, Cars, and Industries
Germ-free goods that have been treated with antibacterial coatings range from chopping boards and waste containers for sinks in the kitchen, to sheets and pillows in the bedroom, and include more generally clothing, toys, stationery, electrical appliances, and even bank deposit books. Recently, an automaker said that all its models would be outfitted with germ-free steering wheels and upholstery. All these products use fabrics and resins impregnated with chemicals, metal ions, and other agents said to kill germs and prevent their proliferation.

Socks and scrubbing brushes were among the first limited range of germ-free items that began to appear on the market about 10 years ago. Now, what began as a novelty appears to have turned into a mania, primarily with the hygiene-conscious young generation. Adding fuel to the fire was the food scare last summer that followed an outbreak of the colon bacillus O-157.

The contagion is even spreading from consumer goods to basic-materials production. One steelmaker has put on sale germ-free titanium. When exposed to the ultraviolet rays from sunlight or fluorescent lamps, the surface develops strong properties of oxidation, which disperses germs. The maker says that in addition, it kills odors and is difficult to dirty. And a maker of special alloyed steels has marketed a silver-based antibacterial material that acts when applied to plastic and pottery.

Weakening Resistance
This phenomenon seems typically Japanese: No germ-free imported goods have been noted. The Japanese arm of one European maker of household electrical appliances confirms that it has no plans to give its products antibacterial treatment, saying that Europeans welcome products that save energy and spare the environment, but are not in general concerned about germs.

Many in the medical profession warn of a lowering of resistance to germs and of other dangerous consequences if the preoccupation with hygiene gets out of hand. They cite Epstein-Barr virus, which among other things causes high fever, a sore throat, and swelling of the lymph nodes in the neck. A generation ago, almost all Japanese had developed antibodies to fight this disease, having been infected typically through saliva during early childhood when sharing food with siblings. Now however, many more children grow up without catching it because they have had the culture of hygiene dinned into them and were always clean in body. In childhood, this infection is very mild, but if it strikes after adolescence, the symptoms tend to be severe.

A different kind of emerging problem is psychological: the severe abhorrence of dirt, characterized by continual hand-washing, known as mysophobia. As it progresses, sufferers find they cannot grasp a train strap or door knob without first wiping it with a handkerchief. In the advanced stage, gloves are worn at all times. Sufferers don't mind if the handkerchief or gloves get filthy, seeing it as proof that they were able to avoid direct contact with the pollution. They are convinced that others are dirty, and that they themselves are spotless. It seems that the boom in antibacterial products may lead for some to the new threats of lowered immunity and mental-health problems.

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