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Friday, March 5, 2010

Which Has More Germs – A Restaurant Tray or a Park Sandbox?

by Janelle Sorensen

I know this headline awakens the germaphobe in most of us, but before you start pulling out the hand sanitizer, I want to make something clear: Germs are generally benign. In fact, according to Scientific American:

“Most bacteria are well-behaved companions. Indeed, if you are ever feeling lonely, remember that the trillions of microbes living in and on the average human body outnumber the human cells by a ratio of 10 to one. Of all the tens of thousands of known bacterial species, only about 100 are renegades that break the rules of peaceful coexistence and make us sick.”

With that said, let’s return to the initial question: Do you think a restaurant tray or a park sandbox has more germs? Initially, I thought a restaurant tray. Public + food = germs, at least in my book. I worked in restaurants for 10 years and saw the unsanitary behaviors of both the staff and the patrons.

My assumption was wrong. These are the numbers according to recent NSF International Swab Testing:

[These numbers represent colony-forming units (CFUs) per square inch. A CFU is a measurement of microbial organisms.]

  • Store shopping cart: 2
  • Restaurant-restroom door handle: 4
  • Children’s library book: 7
  • Stuffed toy in a doctor’s office: 8
  • School-desk surface: 12
  • School computer mouse: 23
  • Store floor: 33
  • Public-park swing: 59
  • Restaurant tray: 204
  • School musical instrument: 262
  • Video-game controller in an arcade: 551
  • Public-park sandbox: 7,440
  • Classroom faucet handle: 32,000
  • Cafeteria water-fountain spigot: 62,000

Now that you know that the typical playground sandbox can contain more than 36 times the amount of germs as a restaurant tray, let’s test your knowledge of germs again. Which has more germs in a typical public school: an animal cage or a cafeteria plate?

This time, I’m totally thinking animal cage – despite my simple equation involving food and the public. Come on, animals in cages live amongst their own excrement! And yet, wrong again!

According to the NSF Top Ten Places Germs Lurk in Schools:

  • Animal cage: 1,200
  • Student’s hand: 1,500
  • Toilet seat: 3,200
  • Keyboard (classroom): 3,300
  • Cafeteria plate: 15,800
  • Faucet (hot water handle): 18,000
  • Faucet (cold water handle): 32,000
  • Plastic reusable cafeteria tray: 33,800
  • Water fountain spigot (cafeteria): 62,000
  • Drinking water fountain spigot (classroom): 2,700,000

I’m positively befuddled at how an animal cage can be one of the least germy spots in a school. Mark it up as another thing that separates us from the animals – our ability to breed and spread microbes. Still, just as I mention above, most of the germs found were not the kind that pose risks to healthy people. But, this does highlight the types of areas that are germ breeding grounds – and the more germs present, the more chance there is that some of those germs are harmful.

So what can you do?
Wash your hands often. The way the bad germs make us sick is by clinging to our hands and then taking a free ride into our mouth, eyes or nose. If your hands are clean before you touch your face (or food), you’re giving yourself an enormous barrier of protection. Here’s a CDC primer:

  • Apply soap (regular soap works just as well as antibacterial and poses less risks).
  • Rub hands together vigorously to make a lather and scrub all surfaces.
  • Continue for 20 seconds! It takes that long for the soap and scrubbing action to dislodge and remove stubborn germs.
  • Need a timer? Imagine singing “Happy Birthday” all the way through – twice!
  • Rinse hands well under running water.
  • Dry your hands using a paper towel or air dryer.
  • If possible, use your paper towel to turn off the faucet.

That final recommendation seems imperative for all those faucet handle foes. And, if you simply wash your hands after touching public keyboards and video game controllers – you’ll get rid of germs before they find their way into your system.

What about water fountains and cafeteria plates and trays? First, you can arm your child with a stainless steel reusable water bottle so they don’t need to rely on fountains. Many schools are now encouraging students to bring water bottles – after finding what a positive impact hydration has on learning and behavior. Cafeteria trays and plates are tougher. Many parents choose to pack a lunch due to substandard cafeteria fare and those children will apparently be less exposed to lunchroom germ warfare. But, what about parents that don’t or can’t pack a lunch? Anyone have any ideas for cleaning up school cafeterias?

And, what about that playground sandbox? How would you keep your kid out, especially at parks that have sand as a ground cover? Is it simply a matter of teaching kids not to touch their faces without properly washing their hands? Easier said than done with toddlers.

How about it, readers? What are your non-toxic solutions?

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Comment on this blog post, share your non-toxic tips, and ask your questions on the Parenting Exchange.

Posted by: Janelle Sorensen at 9:46 am

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