Failing The Toilet Test

The New York Times is reporting that researchers have examined the presence of germs and viruses on airport security trays and have (surprise!) made some findings that will undoubtedly alarm any germaphobe.  The scientific team swabbed surfaces at the Helsinki Airport and found traces of rhinovirus, which is associated with the so-called “common cold,” and influenza A on half of those plastic bins that travelers regularly handle in dropping off and then retrieving their shoes, belts, purses, laptops, and other belongings as they pass through security.

cc168b22f8cb28c4d95df2d6b73510a8What’s more, the researchers compared the presence of the viruses on the security trays with results from swabs they took of the Helsinki Airport toilets — because toilets always seem to be the crucial baseline comparison in studies of this nature.  They determined that none of the viruses were found on the the toilet surfaces at the airport, which means the security trays at the Helsinki Airport failed the time-honored “toilet test.”  (It also probably means that the toilets at the Helsinki Airport are regularly and carefully cleaned, thankfully, whereas nobody is cleaning airport security trays, but that no doubt will be the subject of another study.)

I read the Times article, which is just the latest in a never-ending flood of reports about the prevalence of germs and viruses and other troublesome microorganisms in modern society, and thought about how tough it must be to be a germaphobe these days.  Any surface that is regularly touched by the unwashed masses — ATM machine buttons, subway train poles, turnstiles, the moving rubber handrails on escalators, and the list goes on and on — are likely to be teeming with all kinds of nastiness, especially during the “cold and flu season.”

Some people, like me, simply accept that exposure to germs carried by random strangers is part of modern life.  We’re fatalists about it, and figure that if a virus has your name on it, you’re just out of luck.  But what’s an ardent germaphobe to do?  Wear gloves and face masks, as you see from time to time when you travel?  Up the ante by wearing hazmat suits?  Pay for the TSA pre-check status so you don’t need to take off your shoes and belt and touch those germy security tubs?

Or maybe airports should take the “toilet test” data to heart, and establish special seating areas for germaphobes in every airport restroom, because that always seems to be the cleanest place around.

Beards And Bacteria

Beards seem to be a source of endless fascination for medical researchers and health care reporters.  Ever since Peter Griffin grew a beard that served as home to a nest of birds on Family Guy, their prevailing view seems to be that male facial hair must be host to countless forms of microbial life and teeming with potential disease-causing agents.

bird-beard-peterSome stories contend that the coarser nature of beard hair makes it more likely to trap food particles, note that stroking beards can cause a transfer of germs, and offer helpful observations like “If someone [is] eating dairy products it can get stuck in their beard and become a bit rancid.”  In another recent incident, a microbiologist took swabbings from beards, pronounced himself appalled by the results, and provoked stories with leads like this one on the USA Today website:  “Beard hygiene is important unless you want to have the equivalent of a dirty toilet seat growing out of your face, according to a microbiologist who swabbed a bunch of beards and was shocked by the results.”

Makes you want to cringe any time you’re in the vicinity of some stranger with a rancid sour milk-scented hairy toilet seat on this face, doesn’t it?

So, speaking as a guy who’s had a beard for the last 20 years, it was refreshing to see a new bit of research that counters the notion that beards are germ-ridden potential public health disasters waiting to spread plague and illness throughout the population.  A study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found that clean-shaven men are more than three times more likely to have a challenging form of infection-causing bacteria called MRSA (for methicillin-resistant staph aureus) on their cheeks than bearded guys, and also are more likely to have faces with staphylococcus aureus, which can cause skin and respiratory infections and food poisoning.

Why would this be true?  Researchers think that those two forms of bacteria might form colonies and breed in the microabrasions caused by men repeatedly scraping their faces with sharp objects (otherwise known as shaving).  And, even more intriguing, a separate analysis indicates that beards may be home to microbes that actually kill bacteria, which could lead to the development of new forms to antibiotics — which something that the world desperately needs because bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to the current array of antibiotics.

That’s right:  in the space of a single article, beards go from filthy petri dishes of lurking disease to the potential salvations of the human race!  I think I’ll celebrate by guzzling some dairy products and letting a few drops find a whiskery home.

A Germophobe’s Analysis Of The Relative Health Advantages Of Fist Bumps Over Handshakes

It seems as though scientists are always trying to get us to change our time-honored habits.  Now they want us to reject handshake greetings in favor of “fist bumps,” because a study has shown that a firm handshake transmits far more germs than a quick knuckle clash.

In the study, a scientist stuck his gloved hand into a vat of bacteria, let it dry, and then shook hands, fist-bumped, or high-fived other participants and measured how many germs ended up on their gloves.  (Apparently the scientists didn’t think the “bro shake” or the “down low” were sufficiently common to warrant testing.)  The results showed handshakes transmitted 10 times more bacteria than fist bumps and two times more germs than a palm-smacking high five.

Am I the only person who is relieved at the fact that scientists who developed this particular study didn’t decide to also examine the germ transmission of hugs and kisses, and thereby avoided sticking their faces, lips and entire bodies into vats of bacteria?

No one will be surprised that physical contact with humans involves potential germ transmission.  Of course, contact with just about anything outside of a sealed white-room environment involves potential germ transmission.  Do these scientists ever use a public restroom or take a crowded subway train and have to hang onto a pole?  Unless you want to be a recluse, germ transmission is just something we accept in modern life.

And, in the professional world — at least for a 50-something guy like me — there really aren’t any viable alternatives to a handshake.  I’m not going to be high-fiving opposing counsel when they arrive for a deposition, and in many situations advancing toward someone with your hand clenched into a fist could be misconstrued and provoke more immediate and painful health consequences than a little germ transmission.

If we’re really that concerned about public germ transmission, why not start a campaign to avoid hand contact altogether and encourage everyone to use the Fonzie thumbs-up sign, the double finger-point, or something equally ludicrous?  I’ll just accept the germ-infested reality of the modern world and stick to handshakes, thank you very much.

On The Edge Of A Cold

It started, oh, maybe a day ago, after Kish had been fighting a cold for a few days.  The germs, like the Borg, are trying to tell me that resistance is futile.

IMG_3443That unwanted scratchiness in the back of your throat.  Mucus pouring down the esophagus like the sluggish River Styx.  The occasional, unexpected cough.  And just feeling a little bit . . . off.

Not a full-blown cold, though.  No fever.  No hacking fits that wake me up at night.  No light-headedness.  No uncontrollable sneezing.

I’m treating my condition with the basic patent remedies and folk nostrums.  Aspirin.  Juice.  Ricola Natural Herb cough drops.  I’m staying inside and keeping warm.  And, at night, I’m imbibing a glass or two of wine to dry out the sinuses and help with getting a good night’s sleep.

I think I’m on the brink, teetering between ruddy good health and the alternative.  I may have come through the worst of it already, or I may be ready to plunge.

On A Plane With A Masked Female Passenger

On the first leg of my return flight today I traveled with a passenger who wore one of those white cotton masks covering her mouth and nose.

Immediately I began to wonder:  has there been an outbreak of an exotic disease somewhere in the world that I haven’t heard about?  Or, was this woman just ill, and trying to be somewhat sensitive to the health of her fellow passengers.  (I say “somewhat,” because I can’t believe that those surgical masks really provide much protection, and if she really was sick the rest of us on that confined metal tube with filled recycled air were likely to get whatever germs she might have been trying to contain.  So, she really wasn’t that thoughtful after all — if she was sick, the thoughtful thing would have been to refrain from traveling and exposing the rest of us.)

But perhaps she was worried about getting germs from me, and the woman with the two kids, and the guy wearing the sportcoat and the pork pie hat.  Maybe she was just one of those hypochondriacs who worry about going out in public due to a Howard Hughes-like fear of airborne exposure to the latest strain of bacteria or flu.  I felt vaguely offended by that possibility.  Or maybe she wears a mask because she is famous and is traveling incognito.  Or maybe she just wears the mask to keep people like me on their toes and paying attention to their fellow passengers.

I’ll be paying extra close attention to whether I get the sniffles, a scratchy throat, and a cough over the next day or so.