Redefining hygiene in practice : addressing emerging health risks in home microecologies

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I argue in this thesis that dominant definitions and practices of hygiene in Australia must be updated to account for emerging indoor health risks at the micro-scale. Since World War II, new health risks have emerged in indoor environments that have both transformed and challenged notions of environmental health centred on pathogenic germs. The composition of home spaces, particularly in urban areas of developed nations, have been fundamentally altered by the introduction of post-industrial chemicals in everyday products and building materials. Further, the changing nature of building design, cleaning practices and urban life has altered the ‘microbiomes’ of homes, contributing to a rise in certain types of immune system conditions and resistance to antibiotics. This thesis is concerned with if and how culturally contingent definitions of hygiene embedded in everyday practices contribute to these emerging health risks in the indoor ecologies of homes. This concern is based on the premise that underpinning operative definitions and practices of hygiene are particular conceptions of the human body and how it interacts with its environment. I propose that to begin to address these health risks, the everyday practices that are based on limited notions of health and disease must be interrogated. To do this I develop and apply a qualitative research approach that integrates elements of multiple more-than-human research approaches – social practice theory, multispecies ethnography and chemo-ethnography – to investigate how microbes and post-industrial chemicals manifest physically and symbolically in everyday domestic hygiene practices. This approach informed fieldwork, conducted in Sydney, Australia, which examined the home hygiene practices of parents with children under five years old. Findings from this research highlight some of the ways that chemicals and microbes are assumed to operate in everyday domestic practices. They also provide important insights into the dynamics of everyday life that influence how hygiene is performed in the home and what risks may consequently manifest. In addition to providing insights into the dynamics of practice that may be contributing to maladaptive indoor home ecologies, this research also points to an urgent need for greater knowledge integration across disciplines concerned with different social and material aspects of indoor environmental health
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