Sure, there are outbreaks of microbes and viruses across the country, but these buggers are where you live. In the office, at home, at the gym, on your vacation. “It’s enough to make even the least germophobic person a little worried,” says Dr. Germ, a.k.a. Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona. After all, some of these germs lurk where you least expect them, he says: “People are more worried about the trash can than the kitchen sink, when it should be the other way around.”
Dr. Germ and our panel of experts helped identify the dirty dozen and devise ways for you to keep clean. After all, the fight is in your hands. Literally. Eighty percent of infections are spread through hand contact. So wash up, and get ready to wage a bit of germ warfare of your own.
What’s the first thing you do when you settle in at a hotel? You grab the remote control and switch on the TV. You, and the hundreds of other guests who’ve stayed there. How dirty is it? Owen Hendley, M.D., a professor of pediatrics and infectious disease at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and his colleagues recently tested various surfaces for the cold virus after a group of sick people had stayed overnight. “We found the virus on the remote, door handles, light switches, pens, and faucet handles,” he says.
Reduce the risk: Clean the remote control, phone, clock radio, door handles, and light switches with germicidal wipes. While you’re at it, throw on a pair of slippers and throw off the bedspread. “We’ve found urine and semen on both carpets and bedspreads.” They may not make you truly sick, but it certainly is enough to make you feel queasy.
This is enough to make you dial 911: Office phones often have more than 25,000 germs per square inch, and your desk, computer keyboard, and mouse aren’t far behind. “Phones, including cell phones, can be pretty gross; they get coated with germs from your mouth and hands,” says Robert Donofrio, Ph.D.
Although we’d like to think of ourselves as cleaner than guys, women’s offices have twice the number of bacteria (but men’s are slightly more likely to harbor antiobiotic-resistant staphylococcus). In fact, Gerba calls desks “bacteria cafeterias,” because of all the food particles he found there. Most common office areas -- kitchens, copiers -- are not as dirty as individual desks, although the microwave is pretty bad.
Shocking, but true: The place you go to get clean is quite dirty. In a recent study, Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., found staphylococcus bacteria, a common cause of serious skin infections, in 26% of the tubs she tested, as compared with just 6% of garbage cans. Tubs typically had more than 100,000 bacteria per square inch! “It makes sense when you think about it,” she says. “You’re washing germs and viruses off your body. The tub is a fairly moist environment, so bacteria can grow.”
Once a week, apply a disinfecting cleaner to the tub. “You need to actually scrub, then you need to wash the germs down the drain with water and dry the tub with a clean towel. If you leave the tub wet, germs are more likely to survive,” Scott says. Pay special attention to soap scum -- a surprisingly germ-friendly environment, author Phiilp Tierno, Ph.D., adds. If someone who uses the tub has a skin infection, scrub it afterward with a solution of two tablespoons bleach in one quart of water.
“I see a yoga mat, and I worry,” says Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., who has found antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus on yoga mats and cardio and resistance machines. “At high schools, antibiotic-resistant staph infections have been transmitted through wrestling mats. The same thing could happen at health clubs.”
Reduce the risk: Wipe down machines with antibacterial wipes before working out. Bring your own yoga mat or cover a loaner with your towel. “Shower after a workout and soap up your skin to rinse off any bacteria you may have been exposed to,” Scott says. “Thorough washing gets rid of antibiotic-resistant staph.”
There’s just no way to put this delicately: Children tend to ooze bodily fluids and then spread them around. “When we sampled playgrounds, we were pretty aghast at what we found -- blood, mucus, saliva, urine,” Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., says. Pair those findings with the fact that children put their fingers in their mouths and noses more than the rest of us, and it’s easy to understand why Junior (and maybe his mom or dad) has the sniffles.
Reduce the risk: Carry alcohol wipes or hand-sanitizing gel in your purse, and clean everybody’s hands a couple of times during a park visit, especially before snacking. Pick warm sunny days for outdoor play: “The sun’s ultraviolet light is actually a very effective disinfectant. Most bugs won’t survive long on surfaces that are hot and dry,” says Howard Backer, M.D., MPH, an expert in communicable diseases in Richmond, California.
Your Marc Jacobs? Dirty? Yep. Think petri dish. When women’s purses were tested not long ago, they found that most had tens of thousands of bacteria on the bottom and a few were overrun with millions. Another study found bugs like pseudo-monas (which can cause eye infections), and skin-infection-causing staphylococcus bacteria, as well as salmonella and E. coli. Your makeup case is every bit as bad, as are your guy’s wallet and personal digital assistant.
Reduce the risk: Instead of slinging your bag on the floor, hang it on a hook whenever you can -- especially in public bathrooms -- and keep your bag off the kitchen counter. Stick with leather or vinyl purses, which are typically cleaner than cloth (less-porous surfaces are more impervious to germs). And wipe your bag down every few days with a mild soap or disinfectant, then let it air dry. Brand name, alas, makes no difference.
If you’re not careful, you might pick up more than cash at the ATM. Those buttons have more gunk on them than most public-bathroom doorknobs. (The same goes for vending-machine buttons, bus armrests, and escalator handrails.) After testing 38 ATMs in downtown Taipei, Chinese researchers recently found that each key contained, on average, 1,200 germs. “ATMs aren’t frequently cleaned, and they are regularly touched -- a perfect combination for a lot of germs,” environmental microbologist Kelly Reynolds, Ph.D., says.
Reduce the risk: “Carry an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you and rub it on your hands after a visit to the ATM,” Reynolds suggests. Also, be sure to do it after you handle money. “Paper money actually carries quite a few germs, too.”
Saliva. Bacteria. Fecal matter. Those are just a few of the choice substances Gerba found on shopping cart handles. Carts rank high on the yuck scale because they’re handled by dozens of people every day and you’re “putting your broccoli where some kid’s butt was,” says the professor of environmental microbiology. And, of course, raw food carries nasty pathogens.
Reduce the risk: Many stores have a dispenser with disinfectant wipes near the carts. If yours doesn’t, bring your own and give the handle a quick swab; that’s been shown to kill nearly 100% of germs. Or carry along a cart cover, like the Grip-Guard or Healthy Handle, a dishwasher-safe polypropylene cover that fits over any size cart handle. At the meat counter, follow the lead of Elizabeth Scott, PhD, co-director of the Center for Hygiene and Health at Simmons College in Boston: “I always put raw meat in a plastic bag. If I get some juice on my hands, I ask the person behind the counter for a disinfecting wipe.”
Drinking fountains are bound to be germy, but school fountains are the biggest offenders, with anywhere from 62,000 to 2.7 million bacteria per square inch on the spigot, says Robert Donofrio, Ph.D., director of microbiology for NSF International. Other hot spots: cafeteria trays, sink handles, desk-tops, and computer keyboards. Yes, kids are germy creatures. And, thanks to their slapdash hygiene, 22 million school days are lost each year to colds alone.
Reduce the risk: Send your child to school with plenty of their own beverages. Teach them to wash their hands, especially before and after lunch, going to the bathroom, or using the computer. Send hand sanitizer to every school teacher and give extras to your child. And when it’s your turn to squeeze into that little desk for Open House? Swab it off with an antibacterial wipe, Gerba says. If schools did that every night, they’d reduce the child-absenteeism rate by half.
“Clean clothes” is a whopper of an oxymoron. “Anytime you transfer underwear from the washer to the dryer, you’re going to get E. coli on your hands,” Gerba says. Just one soiled undergarment can spread bacteria to the whole load and the machine.
Reduce the risk: Run your washer and dryer at 150ºF, and wash whites with bleach (not the color-safe type; it doesn’t pack the same punch), which kills 99% of bugs. Transfer wet laundry to the dryer quickly so germs don’t multiply, wash underwear separately (there’s about a gram of feces -- a quarter the size of a small peanut -- in every pair of dirty underwear), and dry for at least 45 minutes. Wash your hands after laundering, and run a cycle of bleach and water between loads to eliminate any lingering bugs.
It’s not exactly a shock that there are a huge number of germs in most public bathrooms, but experts agree that those cramped and overused airplane loos (with only about one toilet for every 50 people) are the worst. “There are often traces of E. coli or fecal bacteria on the faucets and door handles, because it’s hard to wash your hands in those tiny sinks,” says Gerba.
But here’s the worst news: The volcanic flush tends to spew particles into the air, coating the floor and walls with, well, whatever had been swirling around in there.
Reduce the risk: Toilet seats are surprisingly clean, but use the paper cover when available. After using the toilet, wash and dry your hands thoroughly, and use a paper towel to handle the toilet seat, lid, tap, and doorknob. Put the lid down before you flush. If there’s no lid, turn your back to the toilet while flushing.
There are typically more than 500,000 bacteria per square inch in the kitchen drain. That sponge you use to clean the counter? Crawling with bacteria, as are the sink’s basin and faucet handles.
Reduce the risk: “Clean your kitchen counters and sink with an antibacterial product after preparing or rinsing food, especially raw fruits and vegetables, which carry lots of potential pathogens like salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli,” says Philip Tierno, Ph.D., author of The Secret Life of Germs and director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center.
Sanitize sponges by running them through the dishwasher’s drying cycle. As for the sink, clean it twice a week with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach and one quart of water. Scrub the basin, and then pour the solution down the drain.