Germier Than Toilet Seats, But You Touch Them Every Day

Story at-a-glance -

  • Surprising numbers of dangerous bacteria occupy common surfaces you touch every day, including restaurant condiment dispensers, menus, ATM panels, shopping cart handles, and many more
  • Hospitals are some of the most germ-infested places you can visit; studies show that pathogenic bacteria, including MRSA, are populating healthcare workers’ uniforms, privacy curtains, and even paper used in the clinical setting, in addition to the “expected” locations, such as hospital bathrooms
  • A new strain of MRSA is now found in livestock at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as a result of antibiotic overuse, which is evidence that “super bugs” are adapting
  • Your best defense against harmful bacteria is to make lifestyle choices that strengthen your immune system and practice good hand washing technique with non-antibacterial soap

By Dr. Mercola

What do restaurant menus, hands-free faucets, ATM machines and your physician's scrubs have in common? They are all among the "germiest" objects on Earth.

Yes, really.

As much as you might like to give the gold medal to toilet seats when it comes to squeamishly germ-ridden locations, science suggests there are much "germier" places that you're probably frequenting daily.

For example, one study found that each key on an ATM keypad harbors 1,200 germs, including E. coli and cold and flu viruses. The worst button is the "Enter" button, because everyone has to touch it. Flu viruses can survive on hard surfaces such as restaurant menus for as long as 18 hours, according to an article in Mental Floss1. Some of the other dirtiest places and objects might surprise you:

  • Hospitals
  • Lemon Slices in Restaurant Drinks
  • Hotel Room Glasses
  • Kitchen Cloths and Sponges
  • Faucets and Sink Drains
  • Toothbrushes
  • Food Court Tables
  • Fitting Rooms
  • Restaurant Condiment
  • Toy Stores
  • Hotel Bedspreads and Pillows
  • Light Switches
  • Drinking Fountains
  • Wet laundryafter it's been washed
  • Escalator Handrails
  • Gym Equipment
  • Handbag Bottoms
  • Gadget Shops
  • Remote Controls and Computer Keyboards
  • Door Knobs and Handles
  • Cutting Boards
  • Playground Equipment (Swings, Slides and Monkey Bars)
  • Shopping Cart Handles
  • Makeup Samples

Hospitals are Some of the Germiest Places on Earth

When you see hospital staff in bright, cheerfully colored scrubs and crisp white lab coats, do you think bacteria? That's exactly what you should think, considering the findings of several recent studies that show hospitals are not the safe, clean environments we'd like them to be.

  1. A study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Infection Control2 found that more than 60 percent of healthcare workers' uniforms tested positive for potentially dangerous bacteria, including germs that cause pneumonia, bloodstream infections and drug-resistant infections such as MRSA. The samples were obtained from the sleeves, waists, and pockets of 75 registered nurses and 60 physicians at a busy university-based hospital. Eleven percent of the bugs were resistant to multiple front-line antibiotics. This study suggests healthcare workers' attire may be one surprising route by which pathogenic bacteria are transmitted from staff to patients.
  2. Another 2011 study3 found pathogenic bacteria—including MRSA—on the privacy curtains that separate care spaces in hospitals and clinics.
  3. A 2009 study4 showed that pathogenic microorganisms can even survive on the paper commonly used in clinical settings—so the penicillin script your physician hands you may come with its own colony of dangerous bacteria
  4. A 2009 study5 of U.K. nursing homes found 24 percent of residents and seven percent of staff were colonized with MRSA, which means they were carrying the bacteria on their skin (and lab coats) but not  showing signs of infection.

Rates of MRSA in health care settings have been climbing steadily. Statistically, six out of seven people infected with MRSA contract it at a healthcare facility, where the infection shows up in surgical wounds or around feeding tubes, catheters or other invasive devices6. However, these "super bugs" are no longer originating only in healthcare facilities. The bacteria are constantly adapting, and now they are being found in livestock that ends up on your dinner plate.

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The "Farming" of Super Bugs

Today, as much as 70 percent of all antibiotic use in the United States takes place at concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs), and these factory-scale farms are now brewing a novel strain of MRSA. CAFO animals are often fed antibiotics at low doses to prevent disease and promote growth.

MRSA, short for "Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus," is a very dangerous strain of staph bacteria that has developed resistance to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it (methicillin, penicillin, oxacillin, amoxicillin, etc.). Initially, these "super bugs" were coming exclusively from hospital environments, but they've now adapted and spread to other public settings, such as schools, gyms, and locker rooms. And now a new strain has appeared in livestock animals as a direct result of antibiotic overuse.

Experts are concerned this new MRSA strain in livestock could begin to infect humans all over the globe.

Realizing that antibiotics abuse threatens public health, the U.S. FDA plans to issue new regulations for the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry by requiring a veterinarian's prescription before antibiotics can be given.vii

Other countries have also realized the inherent hazards of antibiotic overuse and have opted for a healthier approach to the raising of livestock. For example, Denmark stopped the widespread use of antibiotics in their pork industry 12 years ago. After they implemented the antibiotic ban, a Danish study later confirmed that Denmark had drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their animals and food. This is one reason why I feel it's so important to support smaller, local farms that raise livestock and poultry without antibiotics, on pastures where the animals graze on natural grasses, as opposed to confined to buildings and fed grains.

Bad Bugs, Bad Bugs… Whatchya Gonna Do?

As hard as you might try, you simply can't outrun or outsmart the microbes. They're literally everywhere, including all over you as you read this right now. We are their reproductive vectors--they ride around on us and hop from person to person, using us like an interpersonal railway system. Knowing this, how do you live your life without fearing an attack from every mustard bottle or stationary bike handle you come across?

Relax. You don't have to worry, as long as your immune system is in good shape.

We have shared our lives with the microbial world for many thousands of years, and we will probably do so for millions more. If your defenses are strong, your body will be pretty successful in fighting off invaders. It's only when your immune system is compromised that you're more likely to become ill.

And many of these microorganisms are beneficial—even the pathological ones. Some microbial exposure actually makes you stronger by "training" your immune system to react appropriately, especially when the exposure occurs in childhood. This concept is known as the "hygiene hypothesis."

There is evidence that our modern germophobic culture, with hand sanitizers on every shelf, is counterproductive to good health. Science has found that overly sterile environments are linked with higher rates of depression, increased inflammation, heart disease, asthma, allergies, and eczema. That said, some of today's pathogens are quite a bit more dangerous than those present a century ago, so taking some reasonable precautions is advisable. One of the simplest and most effective preventative measures is proper hand washing.

Your Number ONE Defense Against Germs: Proper Hand Washing

Getting back to basics is often the best advice, and that definitely applies here. Good old-fashioned hand washing with plain soap and water is one of the oldest and most powerful antibacterial treatments there is; no harsh disinfectants or antimicrobial soaps required. To make sure you're actually removing the germs when you wash your hands, follow these guidelines:

1.  Use warm water
2.  Use a mild non-antibacterial soap
3.  Work up a good lather, all the way up to your wrists, for at least 10 or 15 seconds
4.  Make sure you cover all surfaces, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between your fingers, and around and below your fingernails
5.  Rinse thoroughly under running water
6.  In public places, use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs that the handles may harbor

Also remember that your skin is your primary defense against bacteria—not the soap. So resist the urge to become obsessive about washing your hands. Washing too vigorously or too frequently can extract many of the protective oils in your skin, causing it to crack and potentially even bleed, providing germs a point of entry into your body where they can do harm. So mild to moderate washing is really all you need.

AVOID Anti-Bacterial Soaps

You should especially avoid the use of antibacterial soaps and wipes, especially those containing triclosan and triclocarban, chemicals that can worsen the problem of bacterial resistance. There is also recent evidence that triclosan may disrupt your hormone balance. If you wish to use a hand sanitizer, make sure it's made with safe plant-based ingredients such as rice bran extract, aloe vera, chamomile and tea tree oil, rather than the chemical agents you typically find. Now that you've taken care of your outer defenses, you should pay some attention to your inner defenses—your immune system.

My Basic Recipe for Building a Strong Immune System

Maintaining a strong immune system requires following the basic tenets of good health. There is no magic bullet. Staying healthy, or regaining your health, requires some diligence in making good choices about nutrition, exercise, sleep and the rest, over the long term. Good health habits will minimize your risk of getting sick from ANY cause.

Manage your stress; science has proven that stress and unresolved emotional issues have lingering adverse effects on your health
Optimize your vitamin D level with exposure to sunlight or a safe tanning bed; if this isn't possible, take an oral vitamin D supplement
Drink plenty of clean water
Eat foods that are best for your body, according to my Nutrition Plan
Optimize your insulin and leptin levels
Avoid excess sugar (especially fructose) and grain consumption
Avoid processed foods, chemical additives, artificial sweeteners, MSG, and all genetically modified ingredients
Consider taking a high-quality probiotic supplement, as your gastrointestinal system is an important part of your immune system
Exercise three to five times a week
Get plenty of restorative sleep every night