Columns

2012.10.24 Careful: Germs are everywhere

on . Posted in By The Way

By DAVID GREEN

Now and then someone reminds me about something I wrote in columns past such as the visitor last week who talked about exploring Doty's Cave in Lost Nations. Many years have passed since his last visit, but he has photographs of his children inside the cave.

Last week there was a letter to the editor that mentioned my column about the home gymnasium with its reference to using my wife's bath towel for a particular exercise.

The exercise didn't actually specify the wife's towel. I threw that in just to annoy my wife since she's much more particular about her bath towel than I. And the bath towel reference was related to an earlier column about washing fruit and drying it on my bath towel.

Several people have confessed to fruit washing and I had a lengthy conversation with someone about the topic. She, also, was a washer and even a peeler. She peels her apples, knowing that she's throwing away some good stuff but knowing that the good stuff is also contaminated with varying degrees of agricultural chemicals.

The bath towel came up in conversation again Saturday when I spoke with someone following the guest author's talk at the library. This person took a different approach, one that brought to mind last week's column about disgust. There are threads that tie so many of these things together.

She cautioned me about using a bath towel to dry my cleaned fruit because of the notion of the toilet bowl as a germ aerosol device. Darn her. I'd forgotten about that one. A flush of the toilet sends a mist of toilet water into the air. You don't want to wipe your fruit with that, she suggested.

No, of course not, but maybe I wouldn't want to dry my body with that towel, either. She had a solution to that. Don't keep your bath towel in the bathroom.

The germ aerosol thing goes way back to the important germ research done by Dr. Charles Gerba from the University of Arizona in 1975. Gerba spends far more time in bathrooms than the average person.

His seminal studies from 37 years ago measured the "fallout" from a toilet flush by studying what was collected on pieces of gauze placed around a bathroom. The cloud of toilet water aerosol was like a Fourth of July display of fireworks, he said, sending bacteria and viral particles several feet from the toilet—or, you might say, right onto my bath towel. I remember hearing about this a few years ago from my daughter, Rosanna, but it didn't lead to a change in behavior. I remembered a few times to put the lid down before flushing, but it just hasn't caught on. And besides, says my library visitor, that doesn't actually seal the toilet. It will lessen the outflow, but not stop it.

She's a self-described germaphobe who is always on the lookout for contamination, so I suppose she knows about some of Gerba's other research. She must be aware that Gerba points to the kitchen, not the bathroom, as the really dirty room of your house.

In the world of microbes, your kitchen sponge or dishcloth is where the action is. Then comes the kitchen sink followed by the bathroom sink and the kitchen faucet handle. Gerba studied 15 household locations and determined that the toilet seat was the least contaminated.

Dr. Gerba: "If an alien came from space and studied the bacterial counts, he probably would conclude he should wash his hands in your toilet and crap in your sink."

The apartments of single men have lower bacterial counts than a woman's place, supposedly because they don't clean and fail to spread the filth around. Cell phones? Don't even think about them unless you're one of those who wipes the phone off from time to time with an antibacterial cleaner.

One health columnist suggested using a tea tree oil toothpaste for its natural antiseptic properties. What luck. Daughter Maddie brought some toothpaste home from her travels containing New Zealand tea tree oil, but now my wife has cautioned me against using it, fearing that she's contaminated it from her cold sore.

It's such a dirty world in which we live. It's a wonder we're all still walking around.

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