Wash your hands! Again!

With so many trillions of germs, I’m surprised any of us who have ever taken a bite of food or ventured out in public is left standing.



Georgia Brooks

It’s still cold and flu season, so wash your hands.

Although, I’ve just read a book that makes catching a cold or the flu seem like child’s play. Even the norovirus infection, the stomach bug so generous with vomiting and diarrhea, seems mild compared to everything else we can catch from microbes — bacteria and viruses — transmitted by hands, food and public surfaces.

Sharing a popcorn bowl? Having ice cubes or a lemon slice in your drink? Enjoying chips and dip? Using a hand dryer in a public bathroom? Sharing bites or a sip? Whoa. Here come germs by the trillion, most transmitted by hands.

And they’re bringing e. coli, meningitis, rubella, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), whooping cough, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), chicken pox, tuberculosis, cold sores, staph infections as well as the common cold.

The book “Did You Just Eat That?” scared the bejupiter out of me. It’s an entertaining book by two scientists — Paul Dawson of Clemson University and Brian Sheldon of North Carolina State University — complete with charts, graphs, formulas, scientific words as long as your finger and pages of citations and documentations. After reading this, I’m surprised any of us who have ever taken a bite of food or ventured out in public is left standing.


Eating out?

The bacteria listeria monocytogenes, salmonella and other germs can live on laminated plastic menus up to 72 hours. Only six hours on paper menus.

On the rocks? Lemon in your drink?

Almost 20 percent of the bacteria on hands can be transferred to ice cubes and 66.2 percent by a contaminated ice scoop. E. coli was more prominent on lemons at room temperature compared to those that had been refrigerated.

Sharing bites or taking a sip of a friend’s drink?

Don’t. If hands are a major source of cross-contamination, oral bacteria can be even worse. The scientists list five infectious diseases transferred through oral saliva, including pneumonic plague.

Pass the popcorn, please. On second thought, forget it.

Hands diving into a box of popcorn at a movie or a bowl of nuts in a pub are the same hands that have touched doorknobs, handles, arm rests and furniture from day cares, gyms, work places and restaurants and have picked up — prepare yourself, because this is gross — sweat, mucus, fecal matter and more.

These two food scientists love statistics, and they concluded that each person reaches into a bag of popcorn 12 times, increasing the bacteria transfer twelvefold. Just as we have staggered to our feet from this news, they tell us, “Bacteria can survive on common public surfaces for weeks to months, making nearly all public places reservoirs for bacteria.”

Quick, get out the hand sanitizer.

The joke is on you. They tested four brands of ethanol-based hand sanitizers and found that those with lower alcohol content were no more effective than tap water in killing bacteria. A brand with only 62 percent ethanol was not effective at all in eliminating e. coli. They did agree, somewhat grudgingly, that hand sanitizers reduced the number of stomach ailments, grade-school absences and university dorm illnesses.

Go wash your hands! But wait!

Not so fast. Depends on where you’re washing them. In a public place with a hot-air hand dryer? Let’s think this over. Every flush of the toilet spews bioaerosols (sometimes connected with excretion and sewage) into the room, and then the hand dryers blow the bacteria around — some as far as 6 feet. One study found electric hand dryers increase bacteria on hands fivefold while paper towels decrease it by 42 percent.

Forget going out, let’s just have the birthday party at home.

Just try not to think that when we blow out the birthday candles, we spread up to 37,000 bacteria on the cake.

This is a good book for students and scientists who want to repeat the experiments themselves, for germophobes who are already jumpy and for those of us who are reassured that only one in six of us come down with a food-borne illness every year.

I think the book is meant to scare us. And to remind us to wash our hands. 

 

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