The past week’s news of a germs study which suggests we get exposed to bacteria and viruses from places we might not have thought of -- like ATMs and TV remote controls -- shows that technology has brought us closer together in unhealthy ways while maintaining our innocence of the fact. (I’ve provided a lot of links below, but I wasn’t able to find this particular news story on a Web search of either the local newspaper’s site or Google News. But I know I read it in my local daily in the last few days.)
We have all witnessed the ease with which strangers can turn abusive and obscene on the Internet -- in public comments and on discussion lists -- because they can’t see their audience and their “listeners” can’t frown on them in person or pummel them physically. Now, a recent study indicates that fecal matter, E. coli, and other nasty critters hang out in considerable numbers on ATM buttons, remotes, and other locations and implements -- another gift from unseen strangers. News stories in recent years have found similar mother lodes of germs on the handles of grocery carts and inside musical instruments.
Most of it goes back to hand washing: too many people simply don’t do it regularly, or at all. I’ve seen this myself. Every time I go to a public men’s room, I observe that roughly a third to a half of the other males don’t wash their hands at all, and some engage only in the curious non-disinfecting exercise of dipping their hands under running water for a moment without using any soap … as if hand washing were a public ritual that does no good at all but people feel they have to at least pay it lip service, so to speak. I commented on this on my Facebook page in late December and got a relative firestorm of 23 comments in a day and a half. (One friend who did not comment asked me in person later, half-seriously, not to write about such things, it had so unnerved her.)
I was like everyone else when I was younger. I didn’t wash my hands at all, because I didn’t regard my private parts as particularly dirty, or I did my bathroom business without touching them. But it’s not really so much about twiddly bits and creases on one’s person; it’s that you pass through a physical space where hundreds of other people have tarried, some of whom carry disease and touch the seats, fixtures, and handles with their germy fingers. Plus, microscopic bits of human waste are floating in the air, ready to attach themselves to you: if you can smell ’em, they’re there.
After too many winters of catching whatever cold or ’flu virus everyone else has, and too many occasions on which I and/or my wife got sick after taking an air flight because we spent hours in a metal tube with hundreds of other folks -- some of whom inevitably carried germs, I’ve become more sensitive about other people’s contagiousness. Since I don’t drive, in the isolated and familiar environment of a private vehicle, every day I hear strangers coughing, sneezing, and sniffling on buses, light-rail trains, and streetcars … and I know some of them are coughing into their hands and then grabbing poles, seat backs, and hanging straps. It’s not a pleasant thought. More and more, I keep my gloves on or lean against a wall -- even balance without any support while the train rolls -- so I don’t have to touch any surfaces on mass transit.
Have I sufficiently depressed and demoralized you yet? Some further thoughts: The “five-second rule” of dropped food is no good. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is growing. (Maybe the human race could still be wiped out by a plague instead of nuclear war or global warming.) And hands-free faucets may spread more germs than taps you turn on and off with your hands!
On the other hand, we don’t build up germ resistance in our systems without regular exposure to wee beasties. And as much as 90 percent of the cells in our bodies are in fact bacteria, good as well as bad. So there is such a thing as being too careful. (Not to mention paranoid.)