Did you know that on average adults can or will touch as many as 30 objects within a minute and that over the course of a year we can encounter about 60,000 different types of germs? I’d like to say that those stats surprise me, but with the number of media articles and new clips in recent months talking about the dirtiest or germiest public places it seems entirely plausible. Like me, some of you may have the “pleasure” of travelling for work and today after reading an article by Dr. Oz that talked among other things about dirty places I spent the day while travelling to and from Ottawa contemplating what surfaces I had touched.
Based on what has been published this year here are my Top 10 picks for the dirtiest and mostly unavoidable public surfaces:
- Public Restrooms – while we may automatically think of toilet seats, in actual fact the faucets and door handles are the worst offenders. Several studies have found fecal contamination on faucets which in itself is not surprising, but what do you do when faced with a faucet you have to turn off after you’ve cleaned your hands and there is no paper towel to turn it off with? I say WALK AWAY!! At the very least get yourself some toilet paper. Same goes for opening a bathroom door, palm a spare paper towel after you wash up and use it to grasp the handle. Yes, other patrons may think you're a germ-a-phobe - but you'll never see them again, and you're the one who won't get sick!
- Airplane Restrooms – I think it’s safe to say we all gag a bit when faced with the fact that you have to use the airplane restroom. Researchers have found surfaces from faucets to doorknobs to be contaminated with E. coli. It's not surprising, then, that you're 100 times more likely to catch a cold when you're airborne and you’ll never think of turbulence in the same light again – just think of all the spreading around a little shaking can do!
- Elevator Buttons and Escalator (or moving sidewalk) Handrails – while these surfaces have a better chance of being cleaned on a daily basis I loath to even consider the number of times those surfaces are touched between the last time it was cleaned. While it will be unlikely that we can avoid touching elevator buttons, I will certainly be limiting my touching of escalator handrails!
- Grocery Cart Handles - the handles of almost two-thirds of the shopping carts tested in a 2007 study at the University of Arizona were contaminated with fecal bacteria. In fact, the bacterial counts of the carts exceeded those of the average public restroom. If you don’t have a disinfectant wipe to clean off the handle at the very least while you're wheeling around the supermarket, skip the free food samples to avoid eating someone else’s poop!
- Vending Machine Buttons - this introduces a whole new way of looking at too much fast food and vending-machine food being bad for our health! It may not be the food that’s making us sick, but the fact that these machines are rarely cleaned. Next time you grab a bag of chips from a vending machine wash your hands before eating unless of course you’re looking for a little extra protein!
- Restaurant Menus – when was the last time (if ever) you actually saw someone clean a menu in a restaurant. If it's a popular restaurant, hundreds of people could be handling the menus and passing their germs on to you. Never let a menu touch your plate or silverware, and be sure to wash your hands after you place your order.
- Counter Pens – how many times have you had to sign something at a bank or sign in at a company you are visiting? The next time you have to use a counter pen ask yourself how many people have touched this before me? We may mock people with pocket protectors that carry a wide selection of pens, but frankly I think they have the last laugh. They always have a pen handy!
- ATM / Debit Machines – we virtually live in a paperless society when it comes to money. Paying by debit is the norm and based on various articles, ATM or Debit Machines are certainly not cleaned with any frequency. Carrying cash is no better there are germs all over it as well. Unless you intend to wipe down the ATM or Debit machine before you use, be sure to wash your hand after!
- Gas Pump Handles – really should not come as a surprise. They’re gross and we know it. Unless you are willing to drive all over town to find a full service kiosk (where you’re still going to pay by debit….) just be sure to wash or sanitizer your hands after filling up.
- Buttons on Crosswalks – a new thought twist on keeping our streets clean and safe! It’s a bit much to think that city officials will include cleaning crosswalk buttons on a job description. Like gas pump handles and any other public surface, just wash your hands when you get the office and be sure to wash them before you put any food in your mouth!
Do we need to panic or live in bubbles? No. In truth, only 1%-2% of the germs we come in contact with on these surfaces are potentially dangerous to healthy people with normal immunity. Whether germs are viral, bacterial, or fungal, some can remain active on most surfaces for several days regardless of the type of surface (stainless steel, wood, plastic, or even the paper in a magazine). When you touch that surface, it's transmitted to your hands. Then if you touch your eyes or rub your nose or lips, when you eat, VOILA!, you have infected yourself. When and where you can, clean the surfaces you are in contact with the most daily, but most importantly be diligent with hand-washing! Not only will it keep you healthy, but think of it as your civic duty not to spread your germs in public!