‘Tis the season for cold and flu viruses—and more. You probably already know that germs can be spread rather easily, but University of Arizona researcher Charles Gerba, Ph.D. and his team found that a single doorknob with germs can spread a virus throughout an entire building in just hours.
Here’s what happened: Gerba and his team placed a harmless virus with similar properties as the stomach flu-causing norovirus—which causes 20 million illnesses in the U.S. each year—on surfaces, such as doorknobs and tabletops, in a building. In a matter of a few hours, 40 to 60 percent of the people in that same building had the virus on their hands.
But the viral infiltration didn’t stop at people’s hands. It was found throughout the building and was noted particularly in break rooms. Gerba says, “We actually put a virus on a push plate in an office building of 80 people, had three entrances, and within four hours it ended up on over half the people’s hands. And it ended up on over half the surfaces that people touched in that building.”
That’s pretty fast spreading. It makes sense, though, because, on average, an adult can touch as many as 30 objects in only one minute. No wonder light switches, doorknobs, phone receivers, remote controls, computers, cell phones and other “high-traffic” objects are often laden with germs.
So, where else can germs lurk? Some of these may surprise you.
Restaurant menus can harbor tons of germs from many people, especially if it’s a popular restaurant. Those germs can survive for up to 18 hours on the menu and other hard surfaces.
Then there’s the lemon wedges served at restaurants and often found on glass rims. A 2007 study in the Journal of Environmental Health found that 70 percent of those lemon wedges on beverage glasses contained disease-causing microbes, including E. coli and other fecal bacteria. In all, researchers found 25 different microorganisms on 76 lemons at 21 different restaurants. So, you may want to pass on the lemons, while watching out for condiment dispensers at restaurants. They can harbor germs, too.
Oh, the irony of this next one. Soap dispensers in approximately 25 percent of public restrooms are contaminated with fecal bacteria, according to Gerba. He says that the bottoms of the dispensers are touched by dirty hands, so there is a continuous culture feeding millions of bacteria.
Then there are grocery carts. The study found that the handles of nearly two-thirds of grocery carts tested were contaminated with fecal bacteria—more fecal bacteria on the carts than in the average public restroom. Yuck! On that note, you may also want to avoid any free food samples at the grocery store, since that can be a proverbial party of germ sharing.
It’s no surprise that airplane bathroom doorknobs and faucets are often contaminated with E. coli. With that and recirculated air, it’s no wonder some people get sick while traveling by plane.
Here’s another ironic twist: doctors’ offices. Everything from the office furniture, books, magazines, toys and sick people waiting to see the doctor can be germ-filled. In fact, germ droplets from coughing and sneezing can travel approximately three feet before landing on the floor or other places.
So, germ alert! Make sure you take proper precautions—washing your hands regularly, supporting your immune system and more—to avoid as many germs as you can this season and all year long.