- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 13, 2003

The sudden emergence of SARS occurred too late for inclusion in Nicholas Bakalar’s Where the Germs Are: A Scientific Safari (John Wiley & Sons, $24.95, 254 pages), but it is just another round in the never-ending battle between man and microbe recounted in this entertaining yet highly informative book.

“Germs” is the broad term Mr. Bakalar chooses to include bacteria, viruses, archea, protozoa, fungi and the recently discovered prions, one variety of which causes mad cow disease. These microscopic critters thrive in astronomical numbers everywhere we go in the world, not least on and inside our bodies. Fortunately, most are either helpful or neutral in their relationship with humans, but the nasty minority cause us much misery. It is upon these he focuses.

Mr. Bakalar surveys the different environments people inhabit, discussing which harmful microbes are found there, and providing useful advice on how to avoid them. He begins with the kitchen, the site of the most dangerous germs found in the home. Varieties of salmonella bacteria are responsible for a large fraction of episodes of food poisoning, and he reminds us of the best ways to avoid salmonella: Wash hands frequently while preparing food, keep cutting boards clean, cook foods thoroughly, and refrigerate foods, particularly eggs.

Other sources of food poisoning include the much-feared botulinum bacterium, which produces a toxic nerve poison, and the familiar E. coli, which makes its home in intestines but causes harm when it is ingested together with food, something that can occur when people don’t wash their hands properly after using the toilet or when any unwashed surface that touched raw meat is allowed to come in contact with cooked food.

To minimize the chance of bumping into these and other harmful kitchen invaders, Mr. Bakalar advises keeping your refrigerator cold enough, not leaving food unrefrigerated for more than two hours — or refrigerated more than five days — pouring bleach down the drain weekly, and frequently washing surfaces, utensils and your hands. The need to wash your hands properly is a constant theme throughout the book, and Mr. Bakalar reports on studies showing that people actually wash their hands less frequently than they claim, and that people with a college education are more likely to skip this elementary hygienic practice than those with just a high school diploma.

There is no need to use an antibacterial soap — plain soap and hot water do just fine. In fact, Mr. Bakalar points out, soaps that contain the antibacterial substance triclosan may cause more harm than good, because they can encourage the development of resistant strains of bacteria as well as reducing the effectiveness of septic sewage systems by killing the helpful bacteria upon which these systems rely. He also warns us that it is possible to wash too often, a habit that can dry and crack the skin, providing a new avenue of opportunity for ever-opportunistic germs.

After reading “Where the Germs Are,” you will be ready to face the infectious hazards that arise wherever you go and whatever you do, from the most private to the most public settings, with a realistic expectation of the nature and magnitude of the risks posed. Usually, they are reassuringly small.

• • •

Tim Lowe is a leading Australian writer on nature. In Feral Future, (University of Chicago Press, $35, 272 pages) a slightly updated version of a book first published in Australia in 1999, Mr. Lowe discusses at length the propensity of all living forms, not just microbes, to flourish when they are introduced to suitable environments outside their native habitats. His main focus is on the way countless varieties of foreign flora and fauna introduced to Australia, either deliberately or inadvertently, have multiplied in their new surroundings at the expense of many native plants, animals, birds and fish.

However, he does not shortchange the way antipodean species have returned the favor by spreading into many unlikely places in the other continents. We learn how Australian invaders have made themselves at home not only in the relatively close environs of New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and other Pacific islands, but even around the unlikely bonnie banks and braes (actually, on an island in the loch) of Loch Lomond, where a colony of red-necked wallabies can be seen hopping around. More seriously, he says that the Australian paperbark tea-tree threatens the survival of the Florida Everglades.

Mr. Lowe’s account provides fascinating reading even for those of us not normally engrossed in the world of nature. We learn about the popular 19th-century “acclimatization societies” that advocated the importation of species including monkeys, boa constrictors, giraffes, hedgehogs and flamingos, among other species. Not all these ambitions were fulfilled, sometimes because there was not enough interest in importing them and sometimes because the few that were released soon died out.

The book’s cover features a picture of a flock of ostriches running wild in the outback, descendants of birds imported by an ill-advised entrepreneur to find fame and fortune by providing feathers for ladies’ hats. Other deliberately introduced species multiplied out of control and became major pests, most infamously the rabbit, but also foxes, cats and a long list of plants now considered major noxious weeds.

The idea of acclimatization has fallen out of favor in the more ecologically aware era of today, but Mr. Lowe explains why it is almost impossible to keep alien invaders out in a world of international trade. Even hundreds of years ago, the few intrepid travelers who ventured across the oceans in canoes were accompanied by rats, mice and snakes, not to mention insects and other small creatures, but the jet aircraft and large ships of today carry a much larger involuntary load of non-human fellow travelers.

While the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service is extremely conscientious in performing its duties, Mr. Lowe describes the challenge presented by attempting to control such practices as dumping ballast water which contains a rich colony of marine organisms, or inspecting imports of used construction machinery, equipped with tires that are encrusted with soil containing a rich supply of exotic seeds, microorganisms and undesirable bugs.

Mr. Lowe is by no means one of the wild-eyed fanatics who have given environmentalism a bad name. While enunciating his fear that a free-for-all Darwinian competition between all the species on Earth would end in “the McDonaldization of the biosphere”, he confesses that “I love what is natural and I don’t hate the pests … We will never evict all the pests we already have, but we can try much harder to keep new ones out.”

Jeffrey Marsh has written widely on scientific topics and public issues ranging from nuclear strategy to social policy.

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