Did you just eat that? Eight icky facts you may not want to know

You’ll think twice about shaking hands or sharing popcorn after reading this

 As many as 37,000 bacteria can be found on the surface of birthday cakes after having the candles blown out. Photograph: iStock

As many as 37,000 bacteria can be found on the surface of birthday cakes after having the candles blown out. Photograph: iStock

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Many surfaces we come into contact each day can carry bacteria and other microorganisms. How clean are surfaces we touch every day?

Are drinking games, sharing food and blowing out birthday candles then eating the cake sanitary practices?

A mixture of trivia and experimental findings from the pages of Did You Just Eat That? (by Brian Sheldon and Paul Dawson) that made the top eight Irish Times “ick facts” are as follows.

1) Handwashing

Handwashing may be the number one thing you can do to protect yourself and your friends from getting sick. Some facts that might cause you to avoid shaking hands are: 28 per cent of commuters in five UK cities were found to have faecal matter on their hands with bus riders being more contaminated than train riders.

One in five public surfaces tested in five US cities had one or more biochemical markers indicating the presence of blood, sweat, mucus or urine. Movie theatres in Los Angeles and New York were found to be highly contaminated with, among other microorganisms, faecal bacteria. Whirlpools are especially dirty with 81 per cent containing fungi, 34 per cent contained staphylococcus, and nearly all having fecal matter present!

2) Beer pong

You are getting more than beer when you play beer pong. Beer pong is believed to have been first played at Ivy League Colleges in the 1950s and involves throwing a ping pong ball into cups of beer after which the beer is consumed.

An average of 76,000 and up to 3 million bacteria were found on ping pong balls used in university homecoming beer pong games. Photograph: iStock

Beer pong has had a resurgence in recent years with local and regional tournaments in the United Kingdom and European Union and 2019 World Beer Pong Event in Las Vegas with up to $100,000 in prize money.

Our studies found that since the ball often bounces around the area before a successful throw and is also handled by various people, you’re getting more than beer when you play beer pong. An average of 76,000 and up to 3 million bacteria were found on ping pong balls used in university homecoming beer pong games.

3) Menus

When you sit down to order a meal, bacteria is on surfaces all around you, most of which are harmless but menus may be a source of cross contamination. Menus are touched by the staff and other customers with unknown personal hygiene habits. In our study, over 2,000 bacteria were found on randomly-sampled restaurant menus and over 30 per cent of the bacteria on dirty hands were transferred to menus when handled.

4) Blowing on food

Blowing birthday candles out can impart oral bacteria to the cake or food. Over 2,000 water droplets are released in each human breath and 81 per cent of flu patents had detectable flu virus in their exhaled breath. Almost 3,000 more bacteria and as many as 37,000 bacteria were found on the surface of birthday cakes after having the candles blown out by our investigation participants compared to control cakes where candles were not blown out.

5) Hand dryers

They blow bacteria around and are not recommended for medical facilities. One study found hand dryers increased bacteria on hands after washing, while paper towels decreased bacteria on hands. Conventional hand air dryers spread bacteria at least 3 feet from the dryer whereas jet-air dryers blew bacteria a distance of at least 6 feet from the dryer.

In our study, an average of over 18,000 bacteria were found on restroom hand dryers in grocery stores and over 2,000 in gas stations and on a college campus. In general, the push buttons and intakes in male bathroom dryers had more bacteria than those in female bathrooms. More bad news, in restrooms, when the toilet bowl is flushed, water droplets are released into the room.

6) Ice and lemons

In 1987 ice-borne Norwalk virus sickened over 5,000 people in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey. There are other examples of contracted illnesses associated with ice contamination prior to freezing. But we tested the transfer of bacteria from hands to ice and lemons during handling and found an average of over 6,000 E. coli bacteria were transferred to 100 per cent of the wet lemons or ice when touched by our participant’s hands that had been inoculated with this test bacterium. So ice you put in your drink can be contaminated prior to freezing or by hands touching ice and lemons just before they plop in your drink.

7) Sharing popcorn

Eating popcorn in a movie theatre may have hidden risks. First of all the seats and handrails in movie theatres you touch just before diving into a bag of popcorn have been touched by many people before you and have been found to be contaminated.

Eating popcorn in a movie theatre may have hidden risks. Photograph: iStock

A report by the ABC show 20/20 found the movie theatre seats and armrests in New York and Los Angeles were found to carry faecal bacteria. We found that 85 per cent of the handfuls of popcorn touched with contaminated hands contained bacteria and even 79 per cent of the popcorn samples remaining in the serving bowl contained bacteria transferred from the person taking a handful of popcorn from the same bowl.

8) Double dipping

Yes, it’s more than just an icky practice. Bacteria are readily transferred to snack dips by double dipping and remain viable in the dip after two hours. George Costanza (Seinfeld) was wrong! It is like putting your mouth in the dip. We found that on average, between 100 and 1,000 bacteria were transferred from the mouth to the dip by double dipping and as you might expect, the thinner (less viscous) the dip, the more bacteria was transferred from the mouth to the dip since more thin dip drops back into the bowl.

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