David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.

Yle reported recently that Finnish schools may require as much as one billion euros to rid themselves of mould, with 200 million euros required urgently. Thus far, parliament has budgeted only some 35 million euros. Schools will simply have to wait.

Meanwhile, children and teachers alike struggle with breathing difficulties and asthma, rashes, coughs and headaches. Returning after summer breaks, many children reported symptoms which had lapsed were now more severe than ever.

While the symptoms are real and the problems critical, the extent of the issue may also suggest a strange susceptibility to illness in Finland. By European standards, Finns have incredibly high rates of both lactose and gluten intolerance, not to mention a remarkable number of allergies to pollen. If immune systems were an Olympic sport, Finns wouldn’t win a lot of medals.

Genes aside, are there any particular reasons for this?

Possibly not, but I am intrigued by the incidence of diseases such as asthma in a country which must be one of the cleanest on earth. Most homes here seem more hygienic than the average British hospital.

The trend towards urban living is a far cry from the Finland of the war era, when most Finns lived on farms, rode horses and climbed trees; and when the incidence of asthma was lower than it is now. Could urbanisation be the root cause of today’s vulnerability?
Finland has become a country so fixated by cleanliness that it is actually too sterile, meaning that children do not come into contact with the bacteria from which they would develop immunity.

While this might sound exaggerated, it is a concept with ancient roots. American Indians were decimated by flus brought from Europe, simply because they had never come into contact with the bugs before. Residents of many developing world countries live in daily contact with bacteria that could kill a Finnish horse, but do not apparently bother them at all; a fact evidenced by any tourist who has ever suffered ‘Delhi Belly’.

Cleanliness has become a western obsession. TV adverts promote contactless soap dispensers as if our bathrooms were veritable swamps of infection. Every second product advertised, from dishcloths to mouth wash, from vacuum cleaners to diapers, reinforces the idea of the world as being dirty and thus dangerous.

What effect does this have on the next generation, growing into a world defined by a mortal fear of filth, disease and bacteria? Do we really want children to avoid playing in the mud for fear of germs?

Ultimately Finnish schools will be rebuilt, and the issue of mould might disappear from our headlines for a while. This does not, however, mean the problem has been solved. Unless our fascination with sterility changes, it may even get worse.