My apologies for the Beatles-eque title but to be honest, it really did feel like a drug-induced dream or a badly thought out Hollywood movie.

I got a call from a colleague the other day.  Normally we talk disinfection and sometimes a few recent stories but one this day he sounded a tad excited, if not hurried.  He had heard that certain cities in America were under a form of germ warfare.

He had my attention.  What kind of germ warfare?

The air in these cities was full of bacteria, most of which came from fecal matter.

My instinct was to assume that maybe there had been a problem at a wastewater facility or perhaps even a plume of air had come from a dump but as he explained, this wasn’t only one city…this was happening all over.

Now I was getting concerned.  In this day of vigilance towards any action that might be construed as an attack, I started to worry that maybe someone had figured out a way to spread bacteria across a widespread area and that certain cities were being targeted. Perhaps worse, maybe this was a test for an even more insidious plot to send a plague across cities.

My mind wandered and with each thought came a greater fear. Who could be behind this? What are their motives? Why would they do this so blatantly in the open?

But more importantly…HOW were they doing it?

Eventually I found out that the answer had less to do with national security and more to do with sidewalk and park security.  And the threat was not human but canine in nature.  Yes, that’s right.  The real enemies here were man’s best friends.

More specifically, their poop.

Woof.

The story that made the headlines is based in an article from the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology which studied the bacteria in the air of several cities in the Midwest of America.  The study consisted of two six-week sampling periods, one in the summer and one in the winter in which the scientists cultured the air and identified the various species of bacteria as well as the potential source for the bugs.

What the authors found was quite interesting.  During the summer months, the bacteria in the air was almost equally distributed between soil, leaves and feces, primarily canine.  For anyone in ecological microbiology, this wouldn’t be much of a surprise.

However, the bacteria collected in the winter was almost entirely linked to canine fecal matter, which was unexpected.  Even more egregious was the fact that this result provided a quasi-scientific reason for the stigma maligning these two metropolises for being malodorous.

How could that not make a story?

But while the gist is rather inventive and perhaps even amusing, the overall impact of the study is less than spectacular for a number of reasons.

  1. While dog feces does have a rather distinct odor, there is no indication that this odor is magnified in the city, regardless of the colloquial suggestions
  2. There is no suggestion that there are any health impacts associated with the feces in the air although testing for pathogens would be a good next step
  3. The only real remedy to the issue is better enforcement of the ‘poop and scoop’ regulations that exist in most major cities

There is, however, one encouraging aspect.  Beneath all the pokes and jabs at the two cities named and the overal humour that comes from discussing feces in public, the real reason for the popularity of this story is corporeal ecology, that is, the understanding of the body in the environment and the environment in and around the body.

We all know that bacteria are rich in the environment and that exposure to them is inevitable.  It’s the reason we adhere to proper hygiene and better nutrition and an overall better immunity.  But the idea that bacteria from the fecal matter of dogs are in the air and probably being taken into the lungs brings the concept of exposure to a whole new level. And as such, even though it may not be pretty, people must be aware of the environment, the risks posed by living in it and the means by which to keep themselves safe through prevention and control.

That’s the mission of the study of corporeal ecology.

So, while this story might seem to have been the flight of someone’s toilet fancy, the overall reason for the study and the impact of it might have a purpose after all.  I would hope that you take the opportunity to think about your own personal health security and how best to stay aware of your surroundings and protect yourself from the risks of disease and infection.

Or perhaps I’ll put it this way:

The last breath you took in may not have dog feces in it, but, unless you live in a sterile environment, you probably don’t know what else you may have just inhaled.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

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