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Illness-causing germs live and thrive on “dirtiest surfaces”

| Date Posted: 12/15/2011

Jayne Lee, R.N.

Jayne Lee, R.N.

PINEHURST – Winter is upon us and with it flu season – the time to start thinking about avoiding the germs most likely to torture tummies and ravage respiratory systems this time of year.

There are preventive measures you can take, however. The best, according to the director of patient safety and infection control at FirstHealth Moore Regional Hospital, is hand-washing. It also helps to be aware of surfaces that are common breeding grounds for germs. Some of them might surprise you, says Jayne Lee, R.N.

“Gas pump handles were a new one for me,” Lee says.

A recent major-city study conducted by the University of Arizona and the Kimberly-Clark Professional’s Healthy Work Place Project identified a half-dozen commonly touched “dirtiest surfaces” that are likely to be teeming with illness-causing bacteria.

Topping the list were the previously mentioned gas pump handles, followed by mailbox handles, escalator rails, ATM buttons, parking meters and kiosks, crosswalk buttons and vending machine buttons.

To develop the list of offenders, researchers swabbed 350 of the most frequently touched surfaces in six major U.S. cities (Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia). They then tested the swabs’ ATP levels, indicators of animal, vegetable, bacteria, yeast and mold cell contamination.

Objects that had an ATP reading of 300 or higher were determined to have an increased risk of illness transmission.

Although only public-place environments were involved in the big-city study, plenty of home surfaces also serve as breeding grounds for bacteria. “Door knobs are the worst,” says Lee.

So are telephones, computer keyboards and light switches. But there is a difference between contaminated home and outside-the-home surfaces, Lee cautions.

“The germs in the home environment are mostly your germs and your family’s germs,” she says. “Outside the home, you have to consider all the different people who could have touched and contaminated (the surfaces).”

Since public exposure to illness is common and wide-spread, no one is immune. Annual vaccinations help prevent the flu, but actions as simple as hand-washing and avoiding facial contact are very important, says Lee.

The general rule is to wash your hands before eating and after going to the bathroom while keeping your hands, which probably have touched any number of contaminated surfaces, away from your face.

“Don’t touch your nose with your hands,” says Lee, “in case they have been contaminated.”

Effective hand-washing, Lee points out, involves the simple combination of soap, water and friction. The greatest of these is friction.

“Friction is by far the most important,” Lee says. “Anti-microbacterial solutions have some kill-effect, and that’s good to have at a kitchen sink, but it’s not something you have to have. A mild, warm (water) temperature is fine. Gently scrub, making sure to get under the nails and between the fingers. Try not to dry out the skin so you end up with cuts or cracks that open you up to more risk.”

For public places, the disinfectant wipes now available at most grocery stores and some gas stations are good for wiping down surfaces like grocery cart and gas pump handles.

While risk of infection is especially likely during late fall and winter, when people are more likely to gather in groups and in enclosed spaces, it is also important to remember that infection – and therefore hand-washing – is a year-round business.

“Germs don’t go away in the summertime,” says Lee. “There are more colds and flu during the winter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get sick at other times of the year.”

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