It’s 6 a.m. Your alarm shrieks and you hit the snooze button. You have just deposited germs on your alarm clock.
Most of us cringe when strangers cough or sneeze near us. But hands are the real germ carriers, and our own hands are culprits. As you go about your day, your hands pick up other people’s germs but also deposit germs of their own. What kinds? Mostly the ones that cause colds, flus and diarrhea, but also norovirus, staph, MRSA and more.
Let’s track where the worst microbes are in the course of a day. Our tour guide is Charles Gerba, often called “Dr. Germ,” a microbiologist at the University of Arizona. Here’s what Gerba has found in more than 40 years of looking for germs.
Your clothes can harbor salmonella, hepatitis and other viruses. Gerba found that those germs and others can survive laundry efforts because most Americans don’t wash clothes in hot water or use bleach anymore.
The solution: Use bleach or the hot cycle if you can. If not, run the dryer for more than 30 minutes, which can kill germs.
Gerba says kitchens harbor more pathogens than bathrooms because of our own germs and those on raw meat and produce. The worst hot spots are the kitchen sink, the kitchen sponge and kitchen counters.
The solution: Clean the kitchen sink and counter frequently with disposable disinfectant wipes, especially after handling raw meat or produce. Use paper towels, instead of a sponge, to wipe counters. Run sponges through the dishwasher or microwave them for one to two minutes to kill germs.
Gerba said about a third of women’s purses are contaminated with fecal bacteria, probably from being placed on public restroom floors.
He and his team have tested cellphones that contained 100,000 bacteria. And because they are our constant companions — at the table, on the toilet, etc. — they are uniquely positioned to spread germs. “Viruses are a bit more mobile today than ever before because you’ve got mobile phones,” he said.
The solution: Hang your purse on a bathroom hook rather than placing it on the floor. Never put a purse on your kitchen counter. Wipe smartphones frequently with an alcohol-free antiseptic wipe. (Alcohol is not good for the screen.)
The elevator: The ground-floor elevator button is like a petri dish of germs, because everybody who uses the elevator ends up touching it. But there’s something even worse ...
The break room: “The hot spot we found in office buildings is usually the break room,” Gerba said. “Usually on the coffee pot handle. I mean, you want to be the first one to get the coffee in the morning.” When Gerba and his team deliberately placed a synthetic germ in an office break room, it spread to almost every surface in the office in four hours.
The restroom: The toilet seat is pretty clean, because people wipe it or use paper liners, Gerba said. To improve your chances, choose the center stall, which contains fewer germs because fewer people use it. The exit door handle also is pretty clean, because most people wash their hands. The real cesspool in a public restroom is the floor.
The solution: Wash your hands after leaving the elevator at work. Encourage your firm to have a professional cleaning service swab down the break room in addition to the restroom. Wash your hands thoroughly after visiting the break room. Gerba said the biggest mistake people make is “not washing their hands long enough or well enough. Our study showed only half the people who went to a sink used soap in a public restroom.”
Think about what everybody touches at a restaurant: the menu. Gerba found an average of 185,000 bacteria on menus in one test of restaurants in three states. There are probably about a hundred times more bacteria on a menu than on a typical toilet seat, Gerba said. Another problem spot: restaurant seats, because staffers wipe down the tables but not the chairs.
The solution: Order your food from the menu, then wash your hands. Or carry hand sanitizer and use a quick squirt before eating.
Gerba found E. coli bacteria on half of the shopping cart handles he tested. It could have come from shoppers’ hands, babies’ diapers or raw meat that they put in the cart. Fabric grocery bags might be a bigger risk because they provide germs a direct route from the grocery store to your home. Gerba found that about half of reusable grocery bags were contaminated with E. coli, which is associated with the fecal matter of animals and humans.
The solution: Ask your grocery store what shopping cart sanitation measures it takes. Don’t eat while you shop. Wash or sanitize your hands after shopping. Place reusable grocery bags on the floor rather than the kitchen counter. Wash your fabric grocery bags with hot water, bleach or both.