You go to the bathroom at the bookstore, wash your hands, then lift your purse off the shelf where you had it resting and continue into the store where you purchase a book. Do you think you’re safe from germs because you washed your hands with soap? Think again, because according to studies, the toilet seat has fewer bacteria than the bottom of the purse you just handled, and it’s cleaner than the money you receive as change from the store clerk.
Although most of us are conscientious about hand washing after using public restrooms (let us hope), we ignore some of the most insidious sources of bacteria. A recent study by Nelson Laboratories in Salt Lake City investigated the cleanliness of women’s purses. Study director and microbiologist Amy Karen found the results shocking, noting that the handbags in the sample tested positive not only for the presence of bacteria, but for bacteria of the worst kind–including pseudomonas, which can cause eye infections; staphylococcus aurous which can cause serious skin infections; and e coli, which causes food poisoning. In one test, four out of five handbags tested positive for salmonella. Perhaps worse, a similar study out of the University of Arizona found that one-third of the hand-bags in the sample had fecal bacteria present. In fact, some of the purses were 100 times dirtier than the average toilet seat. While a bacteria level of 200 is considered safe, most of the purses weighed in at tens of thousands, and a few had bacteria counts in the millions.
Of course, this makes sense if you think about it. Women stash their purses on car floors, on the baby-changing table in the restroom, on the floor at the café or the bar, on the unmade bed at the friend’s house, on the counter at the bank — places they wouldn’t think of eating off of because of the germ factor. And those places are repositories of bacteria, bacteria that attach themselves to the purse and then to the hand that grabs the purse. Plus, after letting the purse scrape the floor, the typical person sets it down on the kitchen table or on the counter, where the germs happily jump off onto the food. Geronimo!!! And the issue is the same for briefcases, backpacks, and lunchboxes.
But the germs we ignore hardly limit themselves to our purses and briefcases. At the office, we share telephones, copiers, fax machines, and computer keyboards with our colleagues, and so we also share the germs that they leave on these surfaces. Dr. Chuck Gerba, the same guy who studied handbags at the University of Arizona, measured germ count in a variety of office environments and found that keyboards contain 400 times more germs than bathroom surfaces. The telephones tested contained 25,127 microbes per square inch, contrasted with toilet seats, which had only 49. Dr. Gerba points out that virus germs can survive up to 72 hours, so the sneezing coworker who used the copier yesterday might give you the flu today without even coming into the office.
Another repository for germs is “filthy lucre,” which really is filthy. A recent study found that cashiers and bank tellers are at greater risk for the flu than people who don’t handle money constantly. Think about it. A man with the flu sneezes into his hand, then reaches into his wallet and hands a dollar bill to the cashier, and then you come along and receive that same bill just two minutes later. A 2001 study of paper money at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Medical Centre, near Dayton, Ohio, found that 86 percent of the bills tested contained germs, and seven percent carried truly harmful bacteria, like Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumoniae. Although few extensive tests of germ counts on money have been completed, a study just this month at City University in Dublin, Ireland, found that 100 per cent of the banknotes tested carried trace amounts of cocaine. (Oh, happy germs!) Similar research in the US has yielded comparable results, indicating not only that we have a rampant drug problem, but also, that money does indeed carry contamination.
There are other equally ugly sources of contamination — fruits that people squeeze in supermarkets, shopping cart handles, the doorknob at the doctor’s office, and so on. When you think about it, you can get pretty paranoid. A friend of mine carries a can of Lysol with her at all times to fend off germs, and that level of fear isn’t healthy. (Nor do I recommend eating off the toilet seat — a thought that might occur to you since it seems to be so much cleaner than every other surface we deal with.)
Nevertheless, here are a few things you can do to protect yourself:
- Wash those handbags, briefcases, and lunchboxes periodically. Watch where you put your bags, and especially avoid the bathroom floor and eating surfaces.
- Keep your work surface clean and stash a supply of cleaning pads at work for wiping down the telephone and other equipment.
- Wash your hands a lot — not so much that you get hospitalized for obsessive-compulsive disorder–but do wash several times a day, and keep your hands away from your face.
- Do not use antibacterial soaps. They breed super bacteria and viruses. Regular soap and water on your hands and alcohol wipes on work surfaces is more than enough.
Above all, use immune builders and pathogen destroyers, maintain healthy routines, and keep a sense of humor. Germs lurk everywhere, and no matter how careful you are, they will find their way to you. That’s life.