The rise in deadly Ebola virus cases and the increase of a mysterious respiratory illness striking children has served to put people on high alert regarding the spread of disease-causing germs. And for good reason: According to Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona who is also known as Dr. Germ, if just a single doorknob or table in a public place is contaminated, viruses can spread through office buildings, health care facilities and hotels within hours.
In fact, 40% to 60% of workers and visitors in the building could be contaminated in just 2 to 4 hours.
Fortunately, using disinfectant wipes that contain quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATS), and proper hand hygiene can reduce the spread of the flu, norovirus, and other common diseases by 80% to 99%, says Gerba.
Most people are infected after they touch a contaminated source and then touch their mouth, eyes, or nose. So you should probably keep disinfectant wipes – that contain alcohol – handy, and wash your hands on a regular basis. Gerba recommends washing your hands at least five to six times a day.
It also helps to know which public places contain the most germs, so you can be particularly diligent in these environments. Some of the culprits contain crosswalk button, parking meters, first-floor elevator buttons, and mailbox handles. However, keep reading to discover 10 of the germiest public places and objects.
10 Restaurant Menus/Tables
While you may share the same taste as other restaurant diners, you don’t want to share their germs. But that’s what is happening when you touch those filthy restaurant menus, which are never cleaned or disinfected. A study in the Journal of Medical Virology revealed that cold and flu viruses can survive for up to 18 hours on hard surfaces such as those laminated menus. So after you hand the menu back to your server, Prevention Magazine recommends washing your hands, and also warns diners to never put their silverware on the menus.
Restaurant tables are just as filthy as restaurant menus. In fact, they may be worse. The tables are usually washed off after one group of diners leave and before the next group arrives. However, the tables are usually washed off with dishrags that are not being disinfected or changed out often. As a result, washing the tables can actually spread bacteria, according to Elaine Larson, an epidemiology professor at Columbia University’s School of Public Health. To be on the safe side, use your own disinfecting wipes to clean the table.
9 Lemon Wedges
At home, you may thoroughly wash your fruit before you consume it, but this doesn’t happen at restaurants – at least not with lemons. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health, researchers discovered that roughly 70 percent of the lemon wedges on the rims of restaurant glasses contained at least 25 types of microbes, including E. coli, and other types of fecal bacteria.
8 Condiment Dispensers
Every time you pick up a bottle of ketchup or mustard, or the salt and pepper shakers, remember that these are other restaurant items that harbor germs. Unfortunately, most customers don’t wash their hands before they eat, so those condiment containers are loaded with every type of bacteria you can think of. If you have to use condiments, it’s best to use a disinfectant wipe to pick up the bottles.
7 Fitting Rooms
When you try on clothes, you’re collecting the perspiration and skin cells of other people, both of which can foster bacterial growth, according to Philip Tierno, the director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University’s Langone Medical Center. In fact, Tierno says MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, can also be contracted while trying on clothes. Be sure to wear full-coverage underwear when you’re trying on bathing suits, pants, or any other item that may touch your genital or rectum area. Tierno also recommends covering any wounds or cuts before trying on clothes to prevent bacteria from entering through these areas, and he advises washing clothes before you wear them.
6 Soap dispensers/bathroom door handles
While soap is usually considered a weapon in the war against germs, this isn’t always the case. Gerba says that at least 25 percent of them harbor fecal bacteria. That’s because most soap dispensers are never cleaned out, and people are continuously touching the bottom of the dispenser with their dirty hands, so bacteria is always growing in the soap scum. So be sure to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds under a steady stream of hot water, rinse well, and use a paper towel to turn off the faucet. And don’t forget that everyone who uses the restroom doesn’t wash their hands when they leave the bathroom stall. As a result, those restroom door handles are not only filthy dirty, but they are also full of disease-causing germs. After you use that paper towel to turn off the faucet, use it to also open the bathroom door.
5 Grocery Carts
Where should we start? Grocery carts never get disinfected or even cleaned. And hundreds – potentially thousands - of shoppers routinely put their dirty hands on the handlebars and all over the cart. Then, all sorts of items from loosely wrapped raw meat to unwashed vegetables and fruits are placed in the cart. And don’t forget the parents who place their kids – some wearing dirty and possibly overflowing diapers – in the same place where you’re putting your food items. Sixty-six percent of the carts in a study conducted by the University of Arizona contained fecal matter and the bacteria level was comparable to a public restroom.
4 Office Break Room
Office break rooms are particularly germy because they offer so many places for viruses to be quickly disseminated. Sick employees can leave a trail of germs in the office break room because they’re touching everything in there. They start by pouring a cup of coffee and contaminating the coffee pot handle. Then they warm up food in the microwave, contaminating the microwave door handle. From there, they’re opening the refrigerator and contaminating the refrigerator door handle. Next, they’re touching the countertops and leaving a trail of germs there. And finally, they turn on the sink faucet. The whole break room is now overflowing with germs.
3 ATM Buttons
You’re withdrawing more than cash from the ATM machine. Chinese researchers who tested 38 ATMs in downtown Taipei discovered that EACH button contained 1,200 germs on average, include E. coli and cold and flu viruses. And Gerba warns that the “enter” button contains the most germs since it is the button that everyone uses. So what can you do? Try to use your knuckles to punch the buttons, and be sure to wash your hands or use disinfectant wipes afterwards.
2 Escalator Rails
It’s a double-edged sword. Escalator rails are provided as a safety measure to keep people from falling as they get on and off escalators. However, these safety rails are also a health hazard. A study by Kimberly-Clark revealed that 43% of escalator rails sampled contained contamination levels high enough to spread disease. And Gerber says samples taken from escalator rails also contain food, urine, mucus, feces, and blood. Don’t touch the rails unless you have to, and if you do, use some hand sanitizer as soon as possible.
1 The Gas Pump
Apparently the gas pump is dispensing more than just gasoline. It’s also pumping out the most germs than any other publicly-used object, according to Gerba. Seventy-one percent of gas pumps in Gerba’s study were considered “highly contaminated,” with the type of germs likely to cause sickness and disease. When you finish pumping gas, be sure to disinfect your hands before getting back into your car.