Wednesday, August 24, 2011

File Under "Unintended Consequences"

This Physorg science article about the loss of beneficial bacteria also illuminates what I would consider a language problem. Early in the discovery and development history of antibiotics, researchers and doctors immediately comprehended that these medicines could save millions of lives by vanquishing what til then were unstoppable infections. In the time between the discovery of bacteria and the discovery of ways to kill bacteria, scientists focused on the ways bacteria threaten life at the expense of understanding how bacteria support life. The critical services bacteria perform for us, in our guts, in our soil, in our immune systems, etc., were unknown and unacknowledged. The medical profession has begun to recognize the negative consequences of trying to eradicate pathogens, such as "super-bugs" and rapidly evolving drug-resistant forms. This article describes another, less obvious but potentially more severe consequence--the permanent loss of strains of beneficial bacteria, which could contribute to the rising incidence of diabetes, bowel disease, asthma and obesity.

This qualifies as a language problem because due in part to the way bacteria were described in the previous century, the vast majority of people today equate "bacteria" with "bad". This has given rise to a huge and growing market in products that offer to eliminate "99.9%" of bacteria on inert surfaces as well as on our skin. People appear to believe that killing bacteria is a completely positive act, with no negative consequences. Marketing ignores, or perhaps hides, the broader definition of "bacteria" as including a spectrum of biota ranging from deadly in all cases to positive and critical for life in all case. This leads directly to the overuse of antibacterial products, since most people would agree that if killing bacteria is unequivocally "good", then killing MORE bacteria must be better. Unfortunately, it looks like killing bacteria may be the short road to killing ourselves....

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