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Hand washing dishes may help kids avoid developing allergies

GE Monogram dishwasher bottle wash jets
The first dishwashing machine patent went to Joel Houhgton in 1850. The wooden machine wasn’t very affective; its wheel had to be turned by hand to wet the dishes. Unaware of such a patent, socialite Josephine Cochran decided, “If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I’ll do it myself,” according to the Chicago Tribune. After receiving her patent in 1886, she debuted her invention at the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition. While her friends and hotels wanted versions, dishwashers didn’t become widespread until the 1950s, though Cochran’s company eventually became KitchenAid.

People have only been sterilizing their dishes for about half a century. Water above 145 degrees Fahrenheit kills many bacteria. Dishwashers typically run between 130 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit, but people can get third-degree burns from 133-degree water in 15 seconds, according to the Burn Foundation. It would seem dishwashers are a safer option, but new research in the journal Pediatrics from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg suggests it may not be an entirely ideal solution.

 Related: The best way to load a dishwasher, according to science

The university’s study followed 1,029 Swedish children, who were 7 and 8 years old, to see how hand washing and machine washing dishes affected them. Researchers found eczema was far less likely to develop in children whose parents did the dishes by hand, and allergic asthma and hay fever were somewhat less likely to occur in these children, too. The effect may be due to the hygiene hypothesis: the idea that those in developed countries aren’t exposed to enough bacteria and microorganisms, thanks to everything from sterilization to hand sanitizers to a lack of interaction with animals. In developing countries, such exposure helps immune systems learn what it should attack and what it should leave alone.

“The hypothesis was that these different dishwashing methods … are not equally good in reducing bacteria from eating utensils and so on,” Dr. Bill Hesselmar, who led the study, tells NPR. “So we thought that perhaps hand dishwashing was less effective, so that you are exposed to more bacteria.”

Of course, he admits that this could be correlation and not causation and other factors, such as the type of food eaten (fermented) and purchasing some items from a farm rather than a grocery store, also appeared to make the children in hand-washing families more immune.

While he says the study does lend support to the hygiene hypothesis, allergist Dr. Todd Mahr tells NPR that it’s too early to recommend dismantling the dishwasher. “I’m not convinced it’s going to make that big a difference,” he says of favoring hand washing.

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