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Published: Monday, 9/29/2003

Restrooms are home sweet home for germs

That elbow-on-the-paper-towel-dispenser-lever maneuver works. So does the flush-the-toilet-with-a-foot ploy and its counterpart for lifting and lowering the toilet seat. I hang on to the paper towel after drying my hands in public lavatories, and use it to shut the water faucet and open the door.

Public lavatories' reputation as germ-ridden places got a much-needed reinforcement a few weeks ago from the American Society for Microbiology (ASME).

It announced results of a study on hand-washing in public restrooms at major airports. Up to 30 per cent of travelers walk right out without washing their hands.

Are they being careless? Or are they very germ-savvy and afraid to touch anything else in the lavatory?

ASME is the world's largest biological science organization, with 42,000 members who specialize in studying, using, and battling microorganisms, including the bad ones that cause so many diseases.

The society used those findings to reinforce its “Clean Hands Campaign,” an effort to encourage more hand-washing among health care workers and the public.

Disease-causing germs often pass from one person to another on dirty hands.

Actually, microbes travel on hands that may look perfectly clean, but teem with invisible life. Those germs can make you sick if they get into the body. All they need is a gateway, and usually find it via the mouth, nose, or eyes.

Chew a ragged piece of skin on a fingertip. Scratch your nose or rub an eye. Touch food and leave it in a place warm enough for the bacteria you left behind to grow.

If you touch any surface in a lavatory, wash your hands before you unconsciously touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, or handle food. After washing, don't touch the faucet handle with bare hands, or the paper towel dispenser, door handle, or anything else. Those surfaces may be teaming with germs, courtesy of individuals who didn't wash.

One study by Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, found that faucet and door handles actually harbor more bacteria than toilet seats. Toilet seats have a reputation as filthy objects and get cleaned often with strong disinfectants. Few people recognize the amount of invisible filth on faucet and door handles.

Hang on to that paper towel after drying your hands, and use it to turn off the faucet and open the restroom door.

And remember that public restrooms aren't the only dirty places, or even the dirtiest.

Dr. Gerber presented a study at an ASME national conference showing that the surface of a typical office desk harbors 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat. The likely explanation: Desktops don't get disinfected as often as toilets.

Funding for the study came from the Clorox Co., whose products include disinfectant wipes.

The bottom line?

Wash those hands often. Don't assume that activities like using a public toilet mean greater contact with germs than others, like sitting at a desk.



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