SPECIAL REPORT: You Don't Know Where That's Been

SPECIAL REPORT: You Don't Know Where That's Been

(KYTX) - After a few disastrous flu seasons, and recent increases in staph infections nationwide, spreading germs is becoming more and more serious.In a special report, we tested a bunch of things we touch every day to see how filthy they really are.

If you didn't have the flu this winter, you probably know someone who did.

"The last couple of years have been incredible flu seasons. Strange that we're better and better at testing for the flu, but we seem less and less capable of controlling it, especially changes in the flu virus that make vaccines not work very well," says Dr. Richard Wallace, head oMicrobiologygy at UT Health Northeast. 

Dr. Wallace says says the flu isn't the only illness or infection that we've started a bigger battle with in the past few years.  

"The organism we most are testing for is MERSA. It appears to have changed it's aggressive behaviors so it's much more likely to be associated with skin and soft tissue infections," he says.

You might know MERSA by it's other name, staph.

"It is a raising of the skin with fluid underneath, with no odor to it. The concern is it's very painful, can be associated with fever, chills and in the appropriate individuals, can spread throughout the body," Dr. Wallace says. He says in certain people with existing health conditions, it could be fatal. 

The scary thing is, it ends up on a lot of things we touch every single day.  We did the testing to prove it.

We tested a cell phone, a dollar bill, a penny, a public toilet, playground equipment, a gas pump handle, and a workplace keyboard.

This type of testing doesn't show viruses like the flu, but can grow a whole bunch of bacteria, which spread the same way viruses do, by touching or breathing in things that have already been contaminated.  

So the big question: How dirty was everything?

We'll start with the one thing you use the most -- a cell phone.  

"There are some bacteria on here," Dr. Wallace says as he displays bacteria grown on a petri dish. "This may be alpha strep. Those can both be on the skin but they also can be in the respiratory tract."

The next item collected a whole different type of germs.

"This is one of the most heavily contaminated samples so if you guessed toilet seat as your number one choice, you're pretty close!" he said.

Dr. Wallace says most of the bacteria colonies found on the toilet are skin bacteria.  This should be reason enough to make you use those paper seat protectors in public bathrooms.  

This next thing we tested doesn't come with any covers. 

"This one is the handle on the gas tank," Dr. Wallace says.

Apparently a cover may not be necessary!

"There are a few bacteria here but for the most part, not as much as you would expect for something that's handled a lot and that may have to do with the fact that it is contaminated with oil products from the gasoline and that's very toxic to bacteria."

Something else that is toxic to some bacteria? Copper. Dr. Wallace says that's one possible reason we didn't find any bacteria on the penny.  Shockingly, the dollar, which Dr. Wallace guessed would be one of the dirtiest items, didn't grow that much either.  

"In fact it only grew one colony of what is a staph species," he says.

However, he clarifies one is enough to cause a full blown infection.  

"It's a reminder that staph is on your skin and is potentially a cause of infections. Sometimes significant infections," he says.

Unfortunately, it's a type of bacteria we found even more of on playground equipment.

"Lots of bacteria," Wallace says. "Maybe even some staph species in here from the skin. That's a reminder that kids when they go out can pick up other peoples' skin bacteria."

Nothing, however, was as dirty as the workplace keyboard.

"Gross," Dr. Wallace says. "Some of you would think that would be a clean place, but you have to remember where people go when they get up from a computer and come back and sit down. There's been some publications about keyboards being a relatively common source of contamination for a number of bacteria."

So if all of this isn't enough to make you want to wash your hands more often, we don't know what is! Dr. Wallace says that's the best thing you can do, as well as wiping down the things you touch every day.  

One of the biggest germ challenges we face is when someone around us is coughing or sneezing and not covering up. So if you're on a place like an airplane where you can't get away from that, Dr. Wallace says one of those surgical masks will keep you from breathing in germs.  


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