Seán Moncrieff: It’s almost like we’re asking for allergies

Our skin has never been so clean, so sanitised. We scrub so much we become allergic to nature

One terrifying memory I visit occasionally is of an in-house birthday party for one of the kids. Can’t remember which kid; after a while it’s a blur of bouncy castles. But the invited children had reached an age when the parents could drop off and leave, relieving the adults of the need to make tortuous conversation. A mother arrived, plonked a syringe on the kitchen table and told me that her child had a severe nut allergy. If he starts choking, she told me, inject him with this. Then she left.

In me, this prompted two emotions: 1) profound admiration for the no-nonsense way she dealt with her child’s condition, and 2)the aforementioned terror. I spent the next two hours in the back garden, following him around like a poorly-trained detective.

Luckily, the child left without any ill-effects, other than a strong conviction that I was weird. But he certainly wasn’t the last child I’ve encountered who was allergic to something. Son Number One and Daughter Number One are both lactose intolerant. Daughter Number Two thinks she is but really gets bad hay fever. Daughter Number Three also gets hay fever, but every year it comes to her as a surprise. But Herself is the Queen of Allergic Rhinitis.

Screwy immune system

Cats, oysters, cheap jewellery (she claims), the food additive E104 and the months of April to September inclusive can render her incapable of speech, such is the machine-gun nature of her sneezing. We buy industrial-sized boxes of antihistamines.

That nature can render people allergic to nature seems weirdly cruel and inexplicable. As I understand it, allergies are caused by a screwy immune system which thinks that pollen or peanuts are some sort of threat. There might be a genetic component to this, but if there is, it’s not my fault. I’m not allergic to anything, that I know of. Neither is Daughter Number Four.

We talk far more about allergies nowadays; which can infuriate the A-kick-in-the-backside-never-did-me-any-harm Brigade. There’s something snowflakey about the very notion that you can’t climb a tree because it might give you a rash. But we are talking about them more because there has been a steady increase: food allergy cases have risen by 50 per cent around the world in the last decade.

So far, there has been no definitive scientific consensus as to what's causing all this. It might be processed food. It might be an increase in caesarean sections. The Backside Brigade have their own theory, and in this instance, they might be correct: our kids are too clean. Our homes are too clean. We stamp out 99 per cent of all known germs without realising that some of those microbes might be good for building a healthy immune system.

Next generation

But if the hygiene hypothesis is correct, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t also connected to the changed way our children play. I, and most of the Backside Brigade, would have left our homes and wandered around parks or street or fields without our parents worrying that we would be abducted. They would have kicked us out of the house. That would never happen now. Interaction with the outdoors is carefully curated.

Because of Covid, interaction with the indoors is curated too. Our skin has never been so clean, so sanitised. Despite the necessity for masks, it keeps us at a remove from fresh air. And this is something that might not change; or at least become a regular feature of life for the next generation. This may not be the only pandemic of our lifetimes.

Masks and elbows bumps may become a regular recurring feature of human life, at least until we realise that zoonotic diseases like Covid emerge at least in part from human pressures on the ecosystem. We squeeze nature. Which produces viruses. So, we scrub to keep ourselves protected from the viruses. But we scrub so much we become allergic to nature. It’s almost like we’re asking for it.