Germs Are Everywhere, but Do We Really Need to Panic?

CC BY 2.0. Andrew Braithwaite

Our culture's obsession with disinfection is getting a bit ridiculous.

The Washington Post has a list of the dirtiest, most germ-infested areas that you come into contact with on a daily basis. Some of them are no surprise -- the grocery store, your kitchen sponge, public transit. Other germ sources are unexpected, such as your clothing, your alarm clock, and the coffee pot handle in the office break room.

What's amusing about the Post article, however, is that it reads like an anti-TreeHugger crusade toward perfect cleanliness. For every germ-infested danger zone, there is advice, via microbiologist Charles Gerba, a.k.a. Dr. Germ, that goes against everything we write about here.

Take, for example, the advice to avoid germs on clothing. This is a problem, apparently, because most Americans are washing their clothes in cold water. (Imagine that!) To avoid this problem, Dr. Gerba says, "Use bleach or the hot cycle if you can. If not, run the dryer for more than 30 minutes, which can kill germs." So much for lessening your carbon footprint by washing in cold water and hanging clothes out to dry!

Moving on to the kitchen, we're told to "clean your kitchen sink and counter frequently with disposable disinfectant wipes." Ignore the fact that disposable disinfectant wipes are every sewer worker's nightmare and responsible for colossal blockage problems. There's a reason they were named "the biggest villain of 2015" by the Guardian.

What about your commute? Well, apparently public transit is a nightmare, making you six times more likely to get sick than if you walk or drive. It's unfortunate that Gerba does not differentiate between the two alternatives -- walking and driving -- because out of those two, one has considerably more health benefits than the other.

The article's favored germ removal methods appear to be antibacterial hand wipes and hand sanitizer, both of which I avoid like the plague. I hate the waste associated with wipes and the fact that another study showed hospital workers spreading bacteria among surfaces while using disinfectant wipes. Wipes are even associated with a rise in superbugs, which is precisely what Gerba is wanting to avoid. Hand sanitizer commonly contains triclosan, which is a known hormone disruptor, a 'probable carcinogen' (EPA), and has been linked to miscarriages, bladder cancer, thyroid problems, and impaired cellular function. Plus, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that hot soapy water is just as effective as antibacterial washes and definitely safer because it does not contain hormone-disrupting chemicals.

While I understand that certain bacteria and viruses can be very dangerous, I've come to understand over my years of reading and writing on environmental issues that overdoing the sanitization of our selves is a real problem. We're too focused on being clean, on keeping our children clean. We have elevated the concept of 'disinfection' to an absurd level that really isn't necessary under ordinary cirucmtances.

Either this TreeHugger is completely out to lunch with her eco-friendly philosophies and we're all about to keel over from some superbug, or maybe, just maybe, Dr. Gerba's a bit too worried about what could go wrong.

A good takeaway from the Post article, as I see it, is to be aware of where germs can be. Don't lick your fingers after handling a menu, a bathroom door handle, a package of meat at the grocery store. Don't set shopping bags, purses, or lunch boxes on kitchen counters if they've been on the floor. Wash your hands a lot. In other words, use common sense.

In the meantime, I'll take my chances and stick with a plain old bar of soap. I've said it before and I'll say it again:

"As unexciting as it is, plain old bar soap is the way to go. Regular soap works by loosening dirt, oil, and microbes so they can be rinsed away. Effective hand washing requires vigorous scrubbing of all surfaces and should last at least 20 seconds. (Try singing 'Happy Birthday' twice through while scrubbing.) A bar of soap requires little to no packaging, and the greenest option is one with a vegetable glycerine base, free from chemical fragrance and, by extension, phthalates."