punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,
punkwalrus
punkwalrus

Attention Germ-o-phobes

Yesterday, I was listening to a radio show where someone was discussing if you'd eat food in a public restroom. The scenario was you are eating a granola bar, have to use the bathroom, and leave it on the counter while you do your business. Several people called in with their opinions, and most of them were EWW GROSS NO!!! One of them was an RN who went on about how many times she washed her hands every day, and how filthy bathrooms are. "Better to leave it on your desk," they said.

I am split between my reactions here. One of them is kind of a, "get over yourself" response because I think people flip out too easily. The other is, "if you had ANY idea how prevalent germs are and where they are... you'd positively freak out in a very bad way."

Part of the "germ-o-phobia" stems from the same pseudo-scientific and superstitious fears that have plagued mankind since the middle ages and even before. The word "germs" can easily be substituted by the word "evil magic." Because to most people, they are the same thing but they don't realize it. University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, is a leading researcher in germs. Gerba recently completed a survey of 1,000 people to get their opinions of where the germs collect in the strongest concentrations, boosting their risk for infection, and compared those opinions to the evidence he's collected in thousands of germ samples.

"Most people consider Port-a-Potties and other public toilets to be the worst places in terms of surface germs. But in reality, they don't even come close to what you'll find on ATM machines, phone receivers, and elevator buttons," he says. "That's because those toilets are cleaned and disinfected regularly. But when was the last time a typical phone or buttons on an ATM machine or elevators were?"

So why do we think toilets are so filthy? I think it's because we consider using the toilet to be filthy and dirty. Not just poop, but there's a general feeling for shame with using the bathroom. Except in cases of kidney or urinary tract infection (UTI), urine is virtually sterile and nearly odorless. But the thought of getting it on your hands would repulse most people. Someone else's urine? They might wipe it off on flaming wood without thinking, just to get it off. Poop will have traces of bacteria, but a simple washing of hands will get rid of most of it.

The whole concept of bodily waste is often over-stressed to the point of emotional responses. In America, it is rude to say, "I need to use the toilet." You say, "I must powder my nose," or "see a man about a horse." Or more directly, "I must use the restroom." Sometimes I say, "I must partake of the lavatorial facilities," but I am trying to be funny. If I am trying to be crude, I might say, "I need to excrete urine in a porcelain receptacle and then douse my hands with a solvent to remove bio-hazardous materials." Look at some of our top swear words: shit, piss, and crap. Is there ANY way, in the English language, to directly express you have to poop that isn't crude in some way? Even, "I have to use number 2" is way too vague, and yet still considered "TMI." No one wants to think about pooping, but we all have to do it.

So the germ fear hooks onto that, creating a vague and uninformed atmosphere of shame and fear of an invisible menace: GERMS! Sadly, the truth is, germs are everywhere. On your face, under your fingernails, on your keyboard and mouse, doorknobs, and drifting in dehydrated particles in the air, waiting for a moist surface to attach and grow. Our bodies are used to this, and have amazing defense systems. Washing your hands with just soap and water a few times a day will also vastly reduce your risk of getting sick. And if you DO get sick... most of you will survive. For every story about a person who gets a flesh-eating bacteria from a paper cut, there are a huge number of untold stories of someone who got a paper cut that turned red, got a little infected, but they washed it out and all was well the next day. Some people try and counteract these arguments with "if you take a relaxed approach, you might as well French kiss a zombie with the swine flu." Like you only have a choice between two extremes. And some moral lesson will befall you like from a child's fable.

Imagine if brushing your teeth was regarded with the same contempt. Even saying "teeth" would be crude. Yet we all have to brush our teeth, every day, and we never say how gross and disgusting our mouth is. A human bite has more germs than a dog's bite, and we have stuff growing in there strong enough to eat away at pure dental enamel. But saying, "I will be right back, I have to brush my teeth," does not carry the same crude connotations as, "I will be right back, I have to poop."

One of the things that will lower the "ick" factor is having kids. I read somewhere that you know a real mom would hold out her hands for a kid to vomit into them rather than get the vomit on the carpet. "Spit out what's in your mouth," says mom to a toddler who has wads of some unknown substance in there. She'll even wrestle something from his wet and slimy mouth if she things it's not safe. I have done it. And changing diapers pretty much jades you after a few dozen times. "Yeah, that's poop alright. What did he eat that was blue?"

But getting back to the original story. Would you put down a granola bar on the bathroom counter or your desk at work? Chances are, unless you clean your desk as regularly as the bathroom counter is cleaned at work... you might do better with the bathroom counter.
Tags: germs, health, magic, sick
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