I had the esteemed pleasure of connecting with microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba from the University of Arizona to discuss all manner of cringe-worthy, gross out subjects last week. Dr. Gerba is, afterall, the leading authority on how dirty and germy our kitchens, offices, cars, restaurants and general public spaces really are.
The gold standard used when describing just how bacteria-ridden these environments and surfaces are seems to be a good ol' mathematical factor of 10x, 100x, or 1000x "worse than your average toilet". Yes, you read that right. MOST surfaces in our everyday world, outside of our toilet bowls, are typically filthier than our toilet bowls when it comes to illness-inducing pathogens and bacteria. So with a utility belt packed to the gills with sample testing cotton swabs and anti-bacterial hand sanitizer, Dr. Gerba forges ahead into the wilds of microbiology.
Most of my life, I never really worried much about all of that invisible stuff. In fact, I kind of wore it as a badge of courage that I was not overly concerned with shielding myself or my kids from a natural, even perhaps immunity-boosting, interaction with the world around us. And yes, there certainly is a healthy balance when it comes to this subject. However, it was very recently that I spent a holiday season with my entire family -- the season when everyone on the planet got sicker than a dog for 2 weeks and more people died from what was going around than ever before in history -- that I had a complete change of heart on the pathogen transmission topic.
As it played out, I happened to be getting 2 hours of sleep per night for 4 weeks straight due to work obligations and the holiday festivities. My immunity level was lower than it had ever been due to this lack of rest. Then, one by one, each and every person in my 15 member family was taken down by this nasty, never-ending illness ... every single one except me. I was the only healthy person left standing. And I ALWAYS get sick when things go around.
So what was different for me?? Well, I'll tell you ... I DIDN'T TOUCH ANYONE. I didn't hug or kiss my teenage children for two solid weeks. I washed my hands 48 times a day. I sat on the floor for fear of sitting on the couch that everyone else was curled up on, with their puffy-eyes and hacking coughs. I served myself food before everyone else did, and I never let my utensils touch anything that they had touched after me. It was every man for himself, I tell ya, and it was ugly! As a super cuddly loving family, this was torture for all of us.
Stepping back from the scene, could I say that they were being exposed to important bacteria and viruses that were going to make them stronger in the long run?? Umm, NO. People were literally dying from this stuff all around the world! So I finally got it through my head that GERMS ARE BAD! And yeah, they're everywhere, but here's the great news ... WE CAN AVOID MOST OF THEM! Yes, by the grace of hand-washing, not touching, and not breathing sometimes, I survived the carnage. I was the only one acting this crazy about it, but I was also the only one who got out unscathed. Literally, the only one.
AVOIDING CONTAMINATION MATTERS. As Dr. Gerba states in his TEDx talk in Phoenix from 2010, "Hygiene has saved more human lives than all the vaccines and all the antibiotics created in all of mankind" and "Infectious disease is the 3rd leading cause of death only behind cancer and heart disease."
Dr. Gerba is fighting the good fight, making sure that people know what we're up against out there, and making sure, honestly, that we know how easy it is to avoid transmission if we're just a little smarter and more vigilant about it. In that vein, Dr. Gerba shared with me that he fully supports the use of Dining Elevated Flatware Rests as a simple and effective way to keep utensils off of a bacterially-suspect table surface. And the fact is, all surfaces are suspect, so why take the chance?
Stay healthy, my friends! Go forth and UPLIFT!