Dec 17th 2009 | PARIS
From The Economist print edition
Grub, filth, grime, muck, gunk, slag, grit, grunge, smut, dross, dust, sludge, squalor. Insulted, hounded and despised, dirt these days has nowhere to hide. A constant shower of advertising and health warnings orders you to scrub, cleanse or purify every corner of the body, office or home. Bugs lurk at every turn. Skin, as much as household surfaces, must be scoured, sterilised and sprayed. The latest scare is the computer keyboard: supposedly it contains nearly 70 times more microbes than the average lavatory seat.
The effort to remove dirt, and imbue bodies and bathrooms with the scent of tangerine, mint or almond instead, is big business. Each year, the world spends $24 billion on soap bars or liquid gels and wash, according to Euromonitor International, a research firm. Another $106 billion goes on cleaning laundry, dishes, lavatories and other surfaces, including the baths and showers the bodies themselves get scrubbed in. Shock studies periodically expose and deplore sloppy habits. Fully 76 per cent of kitchen sink cloths are infested with germs. One in three American men does not wash his hands after using a public lavatory. Worries about the spread of swine flu are currently doing wonders for the market in pocket-sized antimicrobial handwash.
There is nothing fixed, however, about Western fascination with dirt-or terror of it. As recently as 1965 only half of British women wore an underarm deodorant. Back in 1940 just over half of American households had a proper bathroom. In 1951 nearly two-fifths of English households lacked a bath-and not only for reasons of post-war poverty.