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Media Exploitation of Everyone’s OCD Concerns

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“Study Confirms Your Worst Fears About Public Potties!” This headline bounced all around the Internet recently. Similarly, we often see television reporters swoop in like a swat team on hotels to check the cleanliness of their rooms. Invariably, they find hotel rooms teaming with bacteria. Other reporters have analyzed escalator railings and obtained similar, alarming findings.

We saw a report a few years ago that detailed the dangers of buying used, refurbished mattresses due to bed bugs, fecal matter, and various body fluids that still inhabited such mattresses even after the refurbishing process.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that sales of hand sanitizers have soared over the past decade. You can find antibacterial ingredients in products for your refrigerator, floors, body, toilets, and anything else you can think of. We’ve even seen a UV light wand that can destroy bacteria that you could encounter almost anywhere: airline passenger trays, airline headrests, automobile steering wheels; you name it. Just think; you could use that wand to sanitize every doorknob, each pen or pencil you pick up, and every bathroom water fixture (assuming you happen to encounter any that don’t have auto-sensors to save you from inevitable harm).

But wait a minute. If you look for evidence that significant numbers of humans are dying from refurbished mattresses, dirty public toilets, hotel rooms that haven’t been steam cleaned, and homes that haven’t been sprayed thoroughly with antibacterial products, you won’t find much at all. In fact, one study at Columbia University in Manhattan demonstrated no difference in infectious diseases in homes given an array of antibacterial cleaning products versus those in homes that were given products without the antibacterial agents in them.

In fact, if you consistently spend many hours cleaning your home and disinfecting it with every possible cleaning agent, you may actually cause more harm than good. Scientists now generally believe that excessively clean environments may actually result in increased cases of asthma and allergies. A little exposure to dirt and animals seems to confer a protective effect from these ailments.

So why does the media have such a penchant for stories about germs, bacteria, viruses and such? It’s probably because most people worry at least a little bit about the same things that those who have obsessive compulsive disorder do. Everyone is a little grossed out by the idea that you can encounter fecal matter and bacteria almost anywhere—ice machines, handrails, and so on. Therefore, stories about these topics grab people’s attention. And they sell.

But you could do yourself a favor by not attaching too much meaning to headlines that scream about dirt and disease. No, you shouldn’t quit washing your hands and you certainly should try to avoid too much exposure to insecticides, toxic chemicals, and pollution. And especially wash your hands and use sanitizer if you’re in a hospital environment.

Like just about everything else in life, the tricky answer lies in finding a reasonable balance.

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Media Exploitation of Everyone’s OCD Concerns

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D.

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and a Founding Fellow in the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. He is also a member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University. He specializes in the treatment of adolescents and adults with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, anger, depression, and personality disorders. Dr. Elliott is coauthor of: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2nd Ed), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Why Can't I Get What I Want?, Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be?, and Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. His website is:

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APA Reference
Elliott, C. (2011). Media Exploitation of Everyone’s OCD Concerns. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 1, 2020, from


Last updated: 2 Nov 2011
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