Monday, March 22, 2004

Can you be too clean?

I have a fish tank. I have had the tank for a little over a year and what I have mostly done with the fish is kill them. I could never figure out why, though. I changed the water on a regular basis, kept the filter clean, cleaned the algae out of the tank, etc. I worked hard to make the tank a pristine environment for my fish and all I got was cloudy water and dead fish.

So I got lazy. The fish were dying all the time so I started to lose interest in them. I let the tank go. I stopped cleaning it as much, just giving the filter a rinse every once in awhile. I kept my eye on the pH but other than that I didn't do much. I even cut way back on how much I fed the fish. And guess what? The fish thrived! I haven't had a dead fish in months. The water has been crystal clean even though all the plants are covered in algae. What was going on?

I did some reading and I discovered that my cleanliness was killing all the good bacteria in the tank that break down the bad poisons that the fish produce. In other words, my poor fish were swimming in a sewer of their own excrement and I was killing the organisms that could break down that excrement into harmless materials. Combined with overfeeding I was creating the worst possible environment for my poor fish. My recent laziness has allowed the good bacteria to take hold and keep the tank spotless.

I'm a big Dave Barry fan. I read his column religiously. Without Dave Barry we would never have known that there was a Talk Like a Pirate Day and then imagine how less interesting our lives would be every September 19th. Dave's column on Saturday talked about the phenomenon of over cleaning. He wrote about some research by a scientist named Chuck Gerba (no, really, the guy is a scientist at the University of Arizona). [Side note: Prof. Gerba is famous for his bathroom research.] Prof. Gerba discovered that the kitchens that looked the cleanest were actually the dirtiest. The cleanest kitchens were those of bachelors! How could this be, you ask? Simple, the act of cleaning is a failure at killing bacteria so all those clean people are doing is smearing bacteria all over their kitchens. Those who don't clean leave the bacteria where it is, mostly in the pile of dirty dishes in the sink.

So here we have proof postive in two cases that cleaning is a generally bad idea. So the next time your wife or girlfriend complains about the mess, just tell her you are protecting her from bacteria.

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