Saturday, March 5, 2011

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Germ

Dr. Charles P. Gerba makes a living studying the creepy crawly goobers that the human eye can’t see.

I made some unpleasant discoveries, while watching a lecture of his on hygiene in the 21st century, that made me think twice about a few things in and around my life.
    1. My kitchen: According to Gerba, “a microbiologist alien from outer space might be very confused about whether it should use the kitchen sink or the toilet to do its business because there is over 200 times more e coli and fecal matter on the cutting board in your kitchen than the toilet seat in your bathroom”. People are generally paranoid about keeping their restrooms clean, but throw caution to the wind when it comes to where they prepare their food. Meanwhile dogs seem to have the right idea because “they drink out of the toilet”.

    1. Laundry: Charlie’s mom might have been dirt poor, but she knew how to launder clothes well. Note the steaming vat of hot water she stirs the clothes in the next time you watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Gene Wilder. Considering that the average load of dirty undergarments have upwards of 100 million e coli colonizing them you’d think that washing machines and detergents would be designed to obliterate a scourge to your nether regions, but that’s not the case. Great, great, great, Grandma’s clothes were actually cleaner than most folks today because she probably used more rugged detergents and hot water to do the wash. 95 percent of folks today use lukewarm or cold water to wash their clothes in an average 12 minute spin cycle that might as well be a water park for germs. If you really want to kill diarrhea and flu causing germs you have to crank the heat on high. While it might be more expensive to use hot water you can sleep soundly knowing you have “clean” underpants and hopefully pay fewer doctor bills.

      1. Public Restrooms: In the event of an emergency, say the sky collapses or an alternate universe implodes into our own reality making it absolutely necessary to use a public toilet, I plan to use the first stall. Statistically speaking, most people like to use the middle stall, and I plan to give them wide berth while they enjoy their germ encrusted thrones. I’ll bust down the door with brute strength to avoid touching the outside knob to the restrooms, and use my own hand sanitizer on the way out. Gerba cites 70-80 percent of people using a public restroom that wash their hands, like it’s a fantastic percentage, but that makes me wonder about the other 30-20 percent of people that shake your hand in the street after not washing. Eeeeeeeeeewwww. Oh, but wait, it get’s better when you think about toilets on an airplane. These are the germiest toilets by far. There's usually only one or two per plane for up to 75 passengers to share. They're cramped, and both the toilets and sinks have poor water flow. Currently there are no public health protocols for cleaning them either. Double eeeeeeeeeeeeeew.

      1. Work/Home Offices: I eat at my desk. There. I said it. And, according to Gerba, “most people don’t clean their office desk until they start sticking to it”. Yeah, I’m guilty of that too, and yet the number one germ hippy communes of free love are: cell phones, desktop/laptop computers, and keyboards. Germs can sing kum bay ya in electrical crevices to the thrum of battery powered heat, and reproduce by the gajillions. Interestingly women promote more desk germs than men because they tend to bring more biodegradable food to the camp fire. 70 percent of women store food at their desk, leftovers or maybe fruit, while 35 percent of men store food at their workspace. What men do keep at their desk, statistically speaking, is usually wrapped in plastic with a shelf life that would outlive them if they didn’t eat it.

        5. Teachers: If people got paid for the number of germs they were exposed to teachers would make more money than physicians and lawyers. Gerba explains that the cleanest job environments actually belong to doctors and lawyers. Meanwhile teachers trudge away in their germ factories and will contract more disease. Those that survive in the profession can legitimately claim that their constitution was well vetted.

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        6. Children: If it took you an hour to read this post you will have touched your nose, mouth, or eyes approximately 16 times, and if you’re a young child you probably picked a few gems at least 80 times. Gerba cites young children as germ atom bombs. Having kids may be a joy, but consider having your overly critical in-laws babysit whenever Junior gets a cold. Most parents worry about what toys to give their kids and, from a microbiologist's perspective, the cleanest toy you can give them is a doll. If you’re worried about your children getting sick, or getting you sick via their toys, set aside gender roles and let everyone play with plastic dolls.

         After watching Dr. Gerba’s talk my initial reaction was to commission a bubble boy suit, but quickly realized that a bubble suit would only keep my germs closer to me. If all the germs die, then humans die too. While I’m happy to share the world with invisible microbes I’m still going to carry hand sanitizer, and stay the heck away from public water fountains.

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