The real dirt on the five-second rule

You know it’s the “silly season” when every newspaper in the land takes note of a scientist who’s spent his valuable brain power debunking something nobody really believed anyway. This summer, Clemson University’s Paul Dawson has stirred up debate on the “controversial” subject of whether or not it’s safe to eat food that’s fallen on the ground—if you pick it up within five seconds.

According to Dawson, the Five Second Rule (known as the Five Minute Rule in my house) is the theory that bacteria—like salmonella—doesn’t attach itself to something right away, so you have five seconds to scoop up food that’s fallen and pop it in your mouth without risking gastrointestinal difficulties.

Turns out, bacteria doesn’t adhere to the five second rule. In fact, it can attach itself immediately, so it’s not strictly safe to eat anything that’s fallen on the ground.

With all due respect, I say hooey. Use your brain. Don’t eat things that fall in dirty places. Bathroom: yuk; kitchen: maybe; sidewalk: depends. Teach your children to use their good judgement. Anyway, the rule was never a rule at all—it’s just a way to avoid having your kids freak out when their food (inevitably) falls on the ground: “Here you go, it’s not dirty at all! Only 5 seconds! I’ll just pick out the, uh, dirt and, uh, grass—Look! Good as new!”

I like the way Wikipedia describes the Five Second Rule as a “polite fiction”—a lovely way of saying it’s something no one really believes but makes life a little bit easier.

Anyway, there are other scientists who believe that kids need more dirt, not less in their lives (something school gardeners will no doubt second!). There’s even a dirt pill being tested with asthmatic children in Australia—providing them with probiotic bacteria they apparently didn’t get as infants and toddlers.

And  findings out of the University of California at San Diego last fall show:

that bacteria on the surface of the skin play an important role in combating inflammation when we get hurt. The bugs dampen down overactive immune responses, which can lead to rashes or cause cuts and bruises to become swollen and painful. The findings support previous research which suggests that exposure to germs during early childhood can prime the immune system to prevent allergies.

Enough of theories and rules, this is the summer, after all—let them eat (a little bit of) dirt!

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