Nature Boy recently scaled back using his hands. Again.
He stopped coughing and sneezing into them during the SARS outbreak in 2002. He now spews his sputum and microbes into the insides of his elbows. This prevents him from spreading his viruses to everything and everyone he touches.
It’s all part of his civic/civilized duty, he says.
Then he cut back on direct contact with certain fixtures in public and semi-public spaces — toilet-flush levers, washroom and drink-fountain taps, and telephones that he hasn’t sanitized himself.
Too much television prompted the escalation of Nature Boy’s no-hands policy. According to MythBusters, the popular Hollywood-effects show where the hosts shoot and blow up things — all in the name of proving or debunking accepted wisdom — each square centimetre on an office telephone can harbour more than 10,000 microbes, while a square centimetre on a public water fountain can hold as many as one million bacteria.
By limiting direct contact with those fixtures, Nature Boy limits the microbes he picks up from those surfaces. He instead enlists go-between materials, such as tissue for the washroom fixtures, or pencil or pens to dial telephones. As for holding telephones — “I prefer the speaker function,” he says, waving the eraser end of a pencil at me.
This squeamishness is entirely out of character. Nature Boy does, after all, spend his time handling dog-poo-eating banana slugs, being peed on by turtles and swamping around for bullfrogs. He also knows there’s more to him than himself — his body contains many more bacteria than human cells.
He has now added elevator buttons to the no-touch list.
A study carried out on the elevator buttons of hotels, restaurants, banks, offices and airports found more than 300 “colony-forming units” of bacteria on every square centimetre of button. The equivalent surface area of toilet seat typically has only eight units. A similar study at three Toronto hospitals found that hospital elevator buttons were more contaminated than the hospitals’ toilets.
“How do you avoid touching elevator buttons?” I asked Nature Boy.
“Tissue or pens or pencils work there, as well. But if somebody else is around, I ask them to press the button for me.”
“Oh. Oh. Hey! Do you do that to me?”
Hmph. So much for civilized duty.
But Nature Boy’s list is incomplete. A number of studies have shown that the typical office desk harbours 400 times more bacteria than toilets do and computer keyboards four times more.
And a toilet’s sanitation seems to depend largely on one factor — whether the toilet is flushed with its lid up or down. The forces at play when a toilet flushes — when a toilet bowl’s contents drop suddenly through a hole — causes an invisible fountain of water droplets to spray about 25 cm into the air.
The droplets contain microscopic particles of whatever was in the bowl, including all manner of gut bacteria and viruses. Too small to see or feel, the droplets that don’t hit something while they’re shooting out of the bowl settle on whatever is located nearby.
In other words, they land on the floor, the walls, the door, the toilet paper holder, and even the toilet paper itself. Scientists from Arizona found that toilet paper dispensers contain more than 150 times and paper towel dispensers more than 50 times the amount of bacteria found on a typical toilet seat. Researchers from Colorado also found high numbers of gut bacteria on bathroom-stall doors, soap dispensers and bathroom-exit handles.
The situation becomes even more nauseating at home, where personal-hygiene items may be kept on bathroom countertops within range of wayward toilet-water spray: soap, towels, facecloths, toothbrush holders, toothbrushes ….
Keeping a lid on the flush contains the geyser.
Soon after I showed this to Nature Boy, he cleared off our bathroom countertop, threw out our toothbrushes, and put new ones in a new location, in the cupboard under the sink.
And he’s curtailed his viewing of MythBusters.