Health

Beyond the Laughs, 'The Office' Delivers Some Hard Science. But How Does It Hold Up?

From a lice infestation to rabies, a beet juice diet to stinky feet, here's how the science stacks up in 5 unforgettable episodes of NBC's hit comedy series.

By Bill SullivanJan 8, 2021 5:25 PM
(Credit: Pablo P Varela/Shutterstock)

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Quick! Everybody into the conference room. Today, we’re going to discuss what science has to say about some of the most memorable scenes from the enduring hit TV series, The Office.

The Office ended in 2013, but the show continues to delight old fans and attract new ones on streaming services. The success of the Office Ladies podcast, hosted by Jenna Fischer (Pam) and Angela Kinsey (Angela), further affirms the show’s abiding popularity. It’s apparent that people won’t stop appreciating the endearing employees at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company anytime soon.

The outlandish scenes still make for interesting water cooler banter, and you might be wondering if there’s any truth to them. Let’s take a coffee break and have an educational look at five classic moments from the show.

Angela’s Beet Juice Cleanse

In S6:E23, Dwight and Angela meet with a lawyer to discuss their childbearing contract. Item five, point “B” states that Angela must complete a “beet juice cleanse.” When Dwight asks for a stool sample to verify she is doing the cleanse, Angela flashes her red-stained teeth as proof instead.

Juice cleansing is a controversial dietary trend. During the cleanse period, which is performed for 3–10 days to reportedly detox and lose weight, participants usually consume nothing but juices extracted from fruits and vegetables. Beets are a root vegetable and a good source of some nutrients such as folate, magnesium and vitamin C. Betalain pigments, which give beets the deep red color that stained Angela’s teeth, are antioxidants that also have anti-inflammatory effects. Additionally, beets contain nitrates that widen blood vessels, which can reduce blood pressure and increase blood flow to the brain. One drawback to juicing is the loss of fiber, a key nutrient in this vegetable.

Due to the sharp drop in caloric intake, people on a juice cleanse often lose a little weight. Unfortunately, it is typically gained back as soon as a normal diet resumes. Additionally, many juicers are likely to experience low blood sugar and depleted energy levels. Restricting the juice diet to a single fruit or vegetable will also deprive the individual of other vital nutrients, including protein.

On occasion, especially in people with pre-existing conditions, juicing can lead to excess oxalate in the body, causing acute kidney stones or damage. Given the deprivation of calories, the limited nutrients and the potential adverse effects, a juice cleanse would not be advisable during pregnancy or while trying to conceive.

Incidentally, Dwight was not entirely off-base for requesting a stool sample to verify Angela’s compliance with the beet cleanse. In some people, the betalains can cause stools to darken and urine to redden (a side effect known as beeturia).

Dwight’s “Hygiene Hypothesis”

In S7:E7, Pam leads a discussion about how to minimize germs from being spread around the office. In response to hand sanitizers being set up in the workplace, Dwight protests, “The worst thing you can do for your immune system is to coddle it. … If Sabre really cared about our well-being, they would set up hand desanitizing stations. A simple bowl at every juncture filled with dirt, vomit, fecal matter.”

Dwight appears to be referring to the so-called “hygiene hypothesis,” which suggests that our modern germaphobic tendencies are detrimental to our immune system. The idea is particularly applicable during childhood when the immune system is in its earliest stages of development. Failing to appropriately train the immune system during this critical period may cause it to malfunction. Without germs to fight, some think that the immune system might resort to attacking harmless things or the body, leading to allergies and autoimmune disorders, respectively.

Supporting the idea are studies that have correlated the presence of microbes during childhood with decreased allergies. For example, some studies report a reduced incidence of hay fever in people who grew up on a farm as opposed to in a city. In some studies, this effect can be linked to animal exposure; even in a city environment, pets, particularly dogs, can have a protective effect from the development of allergies.

It is doubtful that the hygiene hypothesis applies in adults, as the developmental window on the immune system has largely closed after 3 – 4 years of age. So, Dwight’s idea to dirty up the office is not only gross, but also scientifically unsound. Furthermore, the hygiene hypothesis is far from proven, and many confounding variables such as genes, diet and the prevalence of antibiotics and pollutants likely conspire to shape a person’s immune system.

Since it was first proposed in 1989, the hygiene hypothesis has been controversial. Some scientists have argued that use of the word hygiene is an unfortunate misnomer that discourages people from being sanitary. Returning to an era of filth would only increase infection rates and detract from finding the real explanation behind the rise of asthma and allergy in developed societies. A more recent version of the idea known as the “old friends” hypothesis distinguishes between good and bad microbes. It asserts that we should certainly protect ourselves and children from dangerous pathogens, such as those lurking in fecal matter, vomit or unclean food, but not be overly concerned about beneficial or harmless microbes that are routinely encountered. These are already present in and around our bodies and may be important for appropriately training the immune system.

Rabies Awareness Fun Run

In S4:E1, Michael hits Meredith with his car, sending her to the hospital with a cracked pelvis. At the hospital, Meredith reveals she was also recently bitten by a bat, racoon and rat, on separate occasions. This prompts the doctors to begin treatment for rabies. And it inspires Michael to organize the "Michael Scott's Dunder Mifflin Scranton Meredith Palmer Memorial Celebrity Rabies Awareness Pro-Am Fun Run Race for the Cure."

But how big of a threat is rabies in reality? Rabies is common enough in wildlife, but is rarely seen these days in domesticated animals and people living in developed nations. From 2009 to 2018, only 25 cases of human rabies were reported in the U.S.; that’s just one to three cases per year. Any mammal can be infected with rabies, but it is most frequently transmitted to humans by raccoons, skunks, bats and foxes.

Rabies is a bullet-shaped virus that slowly creeps through the nerves until it finds the brain, where it causes a terrifying transformation that blurs the line between human and beast. Rabid animals foam at the mouth and become ferociously aggressive; the sickness can turn a lamb into a lion. Also, as Michael Scott points out, people suffering from rabies develop an intense aversion to water known as hydrophobia.

The rabies virus concentrates in saliva and can be transmitted through biting. You might think that a virus capable of such wizardry would be highly complex, but it contains only five genes. One of these genes makes a protein that appears to interfere with communication between cells in the brain, which likely contributes to the behavioral changes caused by rabies. Fun fact: The hangover remedy known as “hair of the dog” has its origins in a supposed rabies treatment devised by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder. Pliny suggested rabies victims should “insert in the wound ashes of hairs from the tail of the dog that inflicted the bite.” Don’t try this. It does not work.

As for Michael’s efforts, his Rabies Fun Run would have been more relevant prior to the 1880s, before Louis Pasteur developed the first rabies vaccine; or, in other parts of the world that face more cases of rabies. Globally, rabies kills nearly 60,000 people each year, largely due to lack of resources and access to medical care.

Lice Bug Bomb

Pediculus humanus capitis was the featured guest on S9:E10, causing an infestation across cubicles at 1725 Slough Avenue. While everyone assumed the head lice came from Meredith, the source was actually Pam, who contracted them from her daughter Cece.

Lice are tiny insect parasites that take up residence on the scalp. These so-called skull vampires suck blood for nourishment and glue their eggs (nits) tightly to the hair. The insects can’t jump or fly, but can be passed between people who share hairbrushes, clips, bedding, towels, clothing or hats. The most common source of transmission is through direct contact with an infested person’s hair. While head lice are an annoyance, they do not carry any known disease.

Our friends on The Office put their heads together (not literally, thankfully) and offered several different solutions. Following Erin's advice, infected co-workers applied generous globs of mayonnaise to each other's hair to try to suffocate the lice. Meredith took a more radical approach and shaved her head. True to form, Dwight overreacts and attempts to rid the office of lice with a bug bomb grenade. Naturally, it explodes before he leaves the room, and the toxic fumes cause him to hallucinate and faint.

Of all the solutions attempted, Meredith’s is most certain to work. Depriving the lice of hair deprives them of a place to lay eggs, and the adults are easily washed away. But many people are not willing to sacrifice their locks. While it’s a popular home remedy, Erin’s idea to suffocate the lice with mayonnaise (petroleum jelly is also common) rarely works, according to (the aptly named) Mayo Clinic. And, as this episode illustrates, bug bombs are far more trouble than they are worth. Lice cannot survive without a host for more than a day, so there is no need to fumigate and risk exposure to dangerous chemicals. More than 3,200 cases of bug bomb-related illnesses, including four human deaths, were reported in the U.S. between 2007 and 2015.

One effective way to treat lice is to use a shampoo containing an insecticide like permethrin. Permethrin is an insect neurotoxin that causes paralysis in the louse by disrupting sodium transport across its cellular membranes. Nit combs can be used in conjunction with the shampoo treatment to physically remove eggs unaffected by the insecticide. Multiple treatments are advised to ensure all of the lice have been eradicated.

Kevin’s Stinky Feet

Jim and Pam’s wedding in S6:E4 was filled with unforgettable moments, including the revelation that Kevin has a serious foot odor issue. Kevin left his shoes outside his hotel door to be cleaned, only to find that they had disappeared during the night. The hotel manager told him: “Mr. Malone, your shoes are gone. … When the bag was opened by our shoeshine, the smell overcame him. I, too, smelled them and made the choice that they must be thrown away. Incinerated, actually.”

Scientists have sniffed out the cause of bromodosis (foot odor), and it can be traced to a bacterium called Brevibacterium linens. Our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria, likely more than 10,000 different species, that live on or inside us. B. linens are harmless denizens of our skin, where they consume dead cells. As they digest the dead skin cells, they release smelly sulfur-containing compounds called S-methyl thioesters as waste products.

Sweaty feet create a moist and salty environment that allows this species of bacteria to thrive, generating pungent odors as they excrete more and more S-methyl thioesters. Incidentally, these are the same bacteria used to produce the rind of smelly cheeses like Limburger.

Kevin could have reduced his foot odor by depriving the bacteria of the sweat they need to grow. He could have achieved this by wearing open-toed shoes whenever possible, using powder or carrying an extra pair of dry, fresh socks. There may also be additional hope on the horizon for folks like Kevin, cursed with industrial strength foot odor. Scientists recently found that socks coated in zinc oxide nanoparticles, which have potent antibacterial activity, are effective at preventing foot odor.

Armed with that knowledge, you can now comfortably prop up your feet and marathon through all nine seasons of The Office. Or, at least track down these standout episodes — with an eye toward science.

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