September 18, 2019
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Discovering germs in public places

I am not a germaphobe. I do not chase after my child with a bottle of hand sanitizer or give it out as gifts. I do, however, know that germs are lurking everywhere. They are getting more and more resistant, which makes them more harmful to us. Therefore, I think it is prudent to take some precautions when you are out and about. You don’t need to appear like a germ probing maniac, but just be aware and practice good hand washing techniques whenever you can.

A typical day

You’ve gone to the ATM machine, put gas in your car, had lunch out and gotten groceries — making a brief stop in the restroom. You’ve managed in just a few hours to come in contact with some of the germiest public places out there.

ATM machines and gas pump handles

Think about those buttons on the ATM machine. How many fingers have pushed those numbers before you? Do you think they washed their hands before requesting their money? Not likely. Be sure that you have hand sanitizer in your car for such a situation.

Gas pump handles are not frequently washed either. So you pump your gas, get back in your car and keep eating that breakfast sandwich you got at the corner store. You took your change back from the clerk who stopped making sandwiches only to ring you up, but never washed his hands before going back to making sandwiches. Probably not the best place to buy your sandwich if they don’t practice good hand washing techniques between making sandwiches and handling money.

Dirty money is not only found in offshore bank accounts. A team of scientists at Oxford University conducted tests on European money in December 2012. The results revealed that the average banknote contained 26,000 bacteria, enough germs to make you feel nauseous and possibly even spread disease.

A study conducted in Switzerland in 2008 and reported at found that some flu virus cells could last for up to 17 days on Swiss banknotes. A study published in 2002 in the Southern Medical Journal found that 80 percent of cash tested carried germs that could be harmful to people that have compromised immune systems. Seven percent of the bills actually showed traces of bacteria that can cause serious illness, including Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumonia.

Restaurant menus and condiment dispensers

Probably you’ve seen a member of the wait staff wipe off a menu in a restaurant, but chances are it was with the same dirty rag used to wipe off the table, condiment dispensers and seats. Menus are used over and over again, day after day by many people. People sneeze, wipe their nose, cough and do other things while holding a menu, allowing their germs to be passed on to you. Never, never let your menu touch anything you are going to eat off of or with. Keep it separate from your plate and utensils. It is a good idea to wash your hands after placing your order or use some hand sanitizer.

The person that sat at the table before you used the ketchup bottle to put ketchup on his fries, but just before he picked up the bottle he sneezed. Like to eat your fries with your fingers? Maybe a fork would be a better idea. Don’t think that just wrapping a napkin around the ketchup bottle will help – napkins are porous, which allows microorganisms to pass right through.

Restroom door handles and soap dispensers

It may seem ironic that soap dispensers harbor bacteria, but it is because most containers are never cleaned so the soap scum builds up. The bottoms of the containers are continuously being touched by contaminated hands so it is a breeding ground for bacteria. About 25 percent of public restroom dispensers are contaminated with fecal bacteria — yes the soap dispenser not the toilet. The cleanest part of a bathroom actually has been found to be the toilet. The sink tap and faucet handles are swarming with bacteria because we touch them right after using the toilet. The sink is a wet, moist environment so it allows bacteria to survive longer.

Grocery store shopping cart handles

There is a reason that grocery stores now have sanitary wipes next to the carts when you enter.

In a study conducted in 2007 at the University of Arizona, the handles of almost two-thirds of shopping carts tested were contaminated with fecal bacteria. In fact, the bacterial counts of the carts exceeded those of the average public restroom. Customers sneeze, wipe their noses, wipe the noses of their children, and then put their hands on the handle of the cart. Also, you pick up packages of meat that may be leaking and then touch your shopping cart handle. Skip the free food in the grocery store – your hands aren’t clean enough to be consuming it. Think about the produce section and how many people may have picked up that apple or that peach before you. It is always a good idea to wash your produce before consuming it.

Airplane bathrooms, lemon wedges, cruise ships, escalator handles, restroom door handles, library countertops and surfaces, doctor’s offices, children’s playgrounds … I’ll stop here. You get the picture.

Just wash your hands when you can — soap and hot water for 15 to 20 seconds.

Still, cash is dirty. A 2002 study published in the Southern Medical Journal also found bacteria-laden banknotes. Over 80 percent of cash tested carried germs that could be harmful to people with lowered immunity.

Last year, three employees at a Michigan Circle K store became ill after handling money that had been contaminated with methamphetamine residue, according to a local news website,

Cocaine is also a common contaminant in the U.S. A 2009 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth found up to 90 percent of paper money circulating in America contained traces of cocaine.

So what to do? While illicit contamination can’t be eliminated completely, scientists suggest basic hygiene: Keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth, and wash your hands often.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. She provides nutrition consultant services through Mainely Nutrition in Athens. Read her columns and post questions at or email her at


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