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Germ Warfare in Public
May 05, 2000

Going to work, stopping at the grocery store, and taking your children to the playground are just some of the things you do in a normal day without even thinking about spreading disease. But some scientists say protecting ourselves against germs is like playing Russian Roulette.

A recent study by scientists at the University of Arizona found that one out of every five surfaces people touch in places like offices, playgrounds and stores contained traces of body fluids that could contain pathogens. But being aware of the riskiest public places could help one avoid these unseen threats.

Tracking the enemy

In order to get a handle on where germs are found and how they spread, researchers collected more than 800 samples from personal items and surfaces found in stores, daycare centers, offices and playgrounds. They tested the samples for the presence of bodily fluids containing hemoglobin (which indicates blood), alpha-amylase (which is found in mucus, saliva and urine), urea (also found in urine), and protein (which indicates general hygiene).

Places tested, ranked from cleanest to dirtiest:

Elevator buttons
Public telephones
Shared pens
Vending machine buttons
Chair armrests
Escalator handrails
Shopping cart handles
Public bathrooms
Bus rails/armrests

They found that playgrounds were the most likely places to harbor germs, after finding bodily fluids on 44 per cent of the surfaces. "Really, I’m never going to go on a swing in a children’s playground again," quipped microbiologist Chuck Gerba, a member of the team conducting the study. The second riskiest place was the bus, where rails and armrests can easily harbor bacteria. Next came public restrooms, followed by shopping cart handles and escalator handrails. According to Gerba, germs can survive on such surfaces anywhere from hours to weeks.

This list may not be so surprising if you consider that Americans touch an average of 300 surfaces every 30 minutes, picking up germs along the way and, in many cases, transporting them elsewhere.

Researchers were able to follow the path of contaminants—at least theoretically—by putting an invisible dye on public surfaces in an office such as doorknobs and telephones. They found that the dye spread most frequently to people’s face, hair, desktop surfaces, drinking cups, keyboards and pens. It then went to surfaces in their cars, and from there to their homes, where it could be found on kitchen appliances, faucet handles and remote controls.

Do you know the correct way to wash your hands?

First wet your hands and apply liquid or clean bar soap. Place the bar soap on a rack and allow it to drain.

Next rub your hands vigorously together and scrub all surfaces.

Continue for 10 - 15 seconds or about the length of a little tune. It is the soap combined with the scrubbing action that helps dislodge and remove germs.

Rinse well and dry your hands.

(from the National Center for Infectious Diseases)

How can I stay clean?

It’s hard to avoid going to the playground or taking the bus, but there are precautions you can take to avoid spreading germs. Gerba has some tips about using public restrooms: "Always go to the first stall, it’s the least used. The middle is always the most used," he says. "The other thing is if it looks dirty, don’t go in it—it is bad, microbiologically."

The best advice may be to wash your hands frequently. Although we pride ourselves on our good hygiene, research shows that as many as 50 percent of Americans don’t wash their hands before leaving restrooms. "The best defense in the world is hand-washing, which people get tired of doing," notes Gerba. Washing your hands is important not only after going to the bathroom, but while you’re preparing food, before eating, or when someone in your house is sick. Also, Gerba thinks that alcohol gels that can be used without water are a great innovation because they kill both bacteria and viruses, reducing them by 99.9 per cent.

To minimize the risk of disease transmission, Gerba and his colleagues also recommend routinely disinfecting frequently touched surfaces at home and work—like light switches, faucet handles and doorknobs. It won’t completely eliminate germs, but it will slow them down.

Elsewhere on the web:

An Ounce of Prevention: Keeps the Germs Away

Microorganisms in Public Washrooms

by Jill Max

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