Second Opinion: We don’t need to be paranoid about germs

Focus on sterile sprays may endanger children who need to get used to bacteria

Dishcloths: E. coli was present on over one-quarter of dishcloths and 14 per cent were contaminated with Listeria. Photograph: Thinkstock

Dishcloths: E. coli was present on over one-quarter of dishcloths and 14 per cent were contaminated with Listeria. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Increasingly obsessed with keeping ourselves and our environment germ-free, many of us would prefer to live in a sterile world. Touch surfaces made from copper are used in healthcare facilities around the world to help prevent the spread of Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Copper rapidly and efficiently eliminates bacteria and viruses deposited by unwashed hands, helping to reduce the risk of infections.

Now other places and services are getting in on the act. Supermarkets in Brazil have trolleys with antimicrobial copper handles. Subway stations in Chile, buses in Beijing and childcare centres in Japan use antimicrobial copper.

Hospitals need to be careful about hygiene, but do we really need to be this paranoid about germs in everyday life?

Industrial marketing

Escherichia coli

No product can rid homes of bacteria and viruses unless houses are sterilised every day from top to bottom. E. coli are rod-shaped bacteria found in the gut of warm-blooded animals, including humans, and excreted in faeces. Some strains of E. coli cause diarrhoea and serious illness.

A US study of supermarket trolley handles found that 72 per cent tested positive for faecal bacteria and half were contaminated with E. coli. These germs can survive on hard surfaces for weeks or months. We need to get used to them.

Antimicrobial liquid soaps, bars, foams, wipes and gels are the latest must-have hygiene products. In the US, people buy 132 million litres of antimicrobial liquid soap and 65 million kilograms of antibacterial soap bars, costing consumers nearly $1 billion annually.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is so concerned about the huge quantities used that it has issued warnings to consumers. According to the FDA, there is no evidence that antimicrobial soaps have any health benefits or are more effective at preventing illness than washing with plain soap and water.

Antibacterial and antimicrobial products contain chemicals, such as triclosan, which pose unnecessary risks to human health when used regularly.

Almost all antimicrobial soaps on sale in Ireland contain triclosan and more than 20 other chemicals.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland advises that “washing hands using plain soap and warm water and proper handwashing technique is enough to ensure hands are clean”.

Dirty dishcloths

How clean is Your Dishcloth?Listeria

According to the report, “It is difficult to see ‘wiping around’ with a contaminated dishcloth as anything other than the almost universal ‘inoculation’ of the domestic food preparation environment with undesirable pathogenic bacteria.”

A study of domestic fridges (published August 2015) found that only one-third of participants were able to identify the correct operating fridge temperature range (0-5 degrees). Forty per cent of fridges were too warm. Study participants were confused about “use by” (food safety) and “best before” (food quality) labelling.

Half knew the correct meaning of the “best before” date and just under one-third understood the definition of the “use by” date. After the “use by” date a food is no longer safe to eat and should be discarded. A food is still safe to eat after a “best before” date, but may have lost its flavour and texture.

The fact is, we are surrounded by germs. Most of these are harmless and beneficial. Other than in hospital operating theatres, a sterile environment is not possible or desirable so why do we buy unnecessary, even harmful, cleaning products?

Children need to build their immune systems by getting used to bacteria and viruses. It is possible to stay relatively safe from infectious diseases without using antimicrobial products or being paranoid about germs.

Handwashing by adults and children is the best defence. Storing food at the correct temperature, paying attention to food labelling, and washing dishcloths in the washing machine every few days is enough to keep homes as safe as they need to be. Check out how to be food safety aware without being paranoid at safefood.ie.

drjackyjones@gmail.com

Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Health Ireland Council.

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