CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - As we head into the heart of cold and flu season, it may seem obvious that the majority of infections are spread when someone touches a germ-ridden surface. The best way to prevent problems is to never touch these "problem" surfaces.
"Everywhere you go all day long there are going to be bacteria. All of our skin, we're covered in bacteria," said Dr. Michael Pentella of the University of Iowa Hygienic Laboratory. He also says most germs won't hurt you thanks to your immune system But there are some germs and viruses out there that do, and will, make you sick. "If you eat something or touch your nose, or your eyes, you could expose yourself to harmful virus or bacteria."
KCRG set out to test surfaces that people come into contact with every day. We tested the following places:
*Ashley Hinson's desk in the TV9 Newsoom
*A gas pump handle
*A bathroom door at the rest stop on I380
*A grocery cart handle at Hy-Vee
*The Play Place at McDonald's (on Blairs Ferry Rd. in Cedar Rapids)
*The Coral Ridge Mall Children's play area
We consulted with the University of Iowa Hygienic Lab to have our sponge-swab samples tested. Nancy Hall is the Environmental Microbiology supervisor at the Hygienic Lab. She conducted a semi-quantitative analysis to determine total Coliform and e-coli bacteria in our samples.
"Particulates and bacteria attach to the sponge," she said. To test our samples, Nancy took the sponge, and used a technique to get the bacteria into a test kit, where it then incubated to see the level of bacteria. "Those bacteria aren't necessarily harmful themselves, but if they're present other bacteria that may be harmful may be along with that," Hall says.
The good news? Most of the samples we got back couldn't find enough of the bacteria to be a problem. But two sample results did stick out: The Hy-Vee shopping cart, and the McDonald's Play Place. Both had enough of the Coliform bacteria to give a positive result from the sponge test. Again, the presence of Coliform bacteria is used as an indication that other disease causing organisms are there. And that had us wondering... Just how often are these surfaced sanitized?
First, we called McDonald's Their manager said there is a woman who cleans multiple times a day with several different strengths of cleaning solutions. When presented with our results, they agreed they may need to revisit the cleaning schedule and would follow up.
We then followed up with Hy-Vee. Their safety and sanitation department said each store does clean and sanitize carts, although it is up to each location to determine when that is done. Hy-Vee does have sanitizing wipes available for customers who want to wipe off the handles on their own.
Dr. Pentella says the bottom line is that you should live your life as though things you touch are dirty. "Things we call high contact surfaces, where a lot of hands are going to touch them all day long, those are always going to have a lot of bacteria and viruses on them," he said. Dr. Pentella recommends washing your hands or using hand sanitizer on a regular basis. "You're not sterilizing your hands as a surgeon would before they go and do a procedure. You're simply removing most of those bacteria. And that's all you need to do."