Home sweet microbiome: invisible décor?

Joan Fieldstone

October 22, 2014

By: Joan Fieldstone, Home Improv Advocate

In: Interior Home Improvement

My parents always bought new-construction homes. My mother used to say she didn't want to "move in on top of someone else's dirt," which made me laugh. By her standards, until I finally bought my very first new-build home three years ago, every time I moved I landed on "someone else's dirt." Despite how clean the accommodations seemed, the specter of "someone else's dirt" always hovered in the back of my mind.

Science reveals Mother was right

According to a radio broadcast of Science Friday that aired on October 10, 2014, there appears to be recent scientific evidence that Mother was right all along. (Why do mothers always have to be right? The Argonne National Laboratory study's lead author, Jack Gilbert, says his mother always tells him when he publishes new findings that she's been telling him these same things for years.) The scientific proof, however, makes it official, showing conclusively that our homes are populated by the unique collection of our very own personal microbes -- a sort of invisible décor, so to speak. When we move into a home that someone else inhabited, we move in on top of the last residents' microbial menagerie better known to scientific types by the term "microbiome."

I can sense the OCDs and "germ-a-phobics" among us cringing and running for the hand sanitizer. I know, I did -- cringe, that is. I was driving when I heard the story, so I couldn't rummage through my purse for the squeeze bottle of anti-bacterial. After all, we are talking here about the tiny organisms that live on and in our bodies. Real estate agents advise removing personal items like family photos when selling a home so buyers can picture themselves living there. But talk about personal items unique to your family! Once you picture in your mind's eye another family's microbiome present on every surface and in the air, can you ever un-see it?

Members of the same household share many of the same bacteria, and the microbiome for each individual consists of 500-800 different species of bacteria. And what about the pets in a home? What kind of microbiome do they generate? Do their microbes co-mingle with yours? Absolutely. The study reveals, as you might suspect, that your shared environment makes it so. My dog, three cats, and I are one big happy family of some shared microbes. I have begun to understand my mother's concerns, at least on some level, but that will never change my relationship with the fur babies.

pets asleep
What's wrong with this picture?

Home is where your microbiome is

The good news is that within a day or so, we are unknowingly "decorating" our new digs with our own blend of bacteria. In fact, if the previous inhabitants have been gone for a day or more, their microbial presence has already begun to fade. So in truth, "moving in on someone else's dirt" is not typically a cause for donning hazmat suits unless there is a known pathogen, toxic substance, or mold present. In fact, when buying an older home, you can usually stop worrying about microbiomes and focus your concern on other hidden potential dangers. A better use of energy would be to hire an impartial home inspector to uncover serious issues like faulty wiring and structural defects. Even new-build homes can have things wrong that a local code inspector who signs off on the home is not looking for. Without a thorough home inspection, don't assume either an older or brand new home is necessarily trouble-free just because the seller says so.

Your mother would probably agree that's good common sense.

Photo credit to Joan Fieldstone.

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