Given how often they’re on the floor, occasionally inside a public restroom, it should come as no surprise that a third of women’s purses crawl with E. coli.
And given how many grubby hands and baby bottoms touch grocery store shopping carts, we shouldn’t flinch at the fact that, on average, they carry 115 times more bacteria than a toilet seat.
It’s a dirty world we’re living in, and often our germiest encounters are not where we expect them.
Not all germs are harmful, and healthy bodies can resist many illnesses. But the more people are exposed, the greater their chance of becoming infected with or transmitting a dangerous bug, from respiratory viruses to a host of foodborne bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year 48 million Americans, or 1 in 6 people, get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.
“You’re always gambling with germs,” said Dr. Charles Gerba, professor in the department of soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona. “The thing is to make the odds in your favor.”
That means reducing exposure to germs, a feat best accomplished with regular hand-washing, using hand sanitizer and keeping your paws off your face, Gerba said.
It also means cleaning those grimy items you rarely think to clean, like remote controls and cellphones.
How often to scrub down depends on several factors. If you have kids or pets, if you are immuno-compromised or someone in your household is sick, you may need to clean more thoroughly and frequently, said Donna Duberg, assistant professor of clinical lab science at Saint Louis University in St. Louis.
Here are average total bacteria counts, per square inch, for a dozen common germ-infested items we encounter in our daily lives, according to Gerba, who has tested hundreds of surfaces.
• Dish sponge: 775,460,560
The dirt: Easily the grossest cesspool in your household, the sponge is often a culprit in spreading germs around when you use a dirty one to “clean” other surfaces. It takes about a week for the germ count to get sky high.
To clean: Some people suggest running sponges through the dishwasher, but Duberg cautions that can contaminate your dishwasher and your dishes. Better to throw them away and buy a new pack at the dollar store, she said. You could also put it in the microwave for 30 seconds to kill germs, Gerba said. Do this weekly or after each time you wipe down surfaces that had raw meats or vegetables on them.
• Kitchen faucet handle: 228,854
The dirt: There’s more fecal bacteria in the kitchen sink than in the toilet after we flush it, Gerba said, thanks to all the meat and produce remnants that collect there.
To clean: Clean off visible soil first, then wipe with sanitizing wipes. The surface must stay wet for 30 seconds to kill 99.9 percent of germs, Duberg said.
• Shopping cart: 138,000
The dirt: Exposed to food and infants, as well as birds in the parking lot, shopping carts are dirtier than many other public surfaces. Coliform bacteria were detected in 72 percent of 85 shopping carts sampled in a study. Children have been found to be at higher risk of salmonella infection when riding in a cart, Gerba said.
To clean: Carry sanitizing wipes with you and wipe down the handle and the basket where kids tend to sit. Avoid rubbing your face, and wash your hands afterward.