Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes
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We are surrounded by bacteria and viruses every moment of every day. They're all around us and inside us. And for the most part that's perfectly normal.
But not always. So how do you know which germs are safe and which ones are not and what you need to do to avoid them?
For people afraid of germs, the world can be a scary place. Every person you meet, every where you go, you are surrounded by bacteria, bugs, viruses..
It's a world filled with microbiol menace. But will these public enemies pass the germ test?
To find out we took bacteria samples from the mouth piece of a payphone, an atm machine, the hand rail on a muni bus, the handle of a public restroom, and an elevator button.
We took them to Anresco labs in San Francisco to be analyzed, where Laila Lam told us what they found.
Laila Lam/ Anresco Inc.: "THERE IS A LOT OF ORGANISMS HERE, AND THAT WOULD BE EXPECTED BECAUSE A LOT OF PEOPLE TOUCH IT AND PEOPLE DON'T SANITIZE THEIR HANDS BEFORE THEY USE IT."
The ATM button had some interesting bacteria growing on it, as did the payphone sample.. almost covering the petri dish.
LAILA LAM: "IT MIGHT NOT KILL YOU, BUT IT COULD GROSS YOU OUT".
The other samples also had bacteria, with the muni sample being the cleanest.
It's no surprise.
Bacteria is found on everything from kitchen sponges to supermarket shopping carts. That has some people wary about where they go and what they do.
"LIKE SCHOOLS, RESTAURANTS, PLACES WHERE PEOPLE DON'T WASH THEIR HANDS AFTER COMING OUT OF THE RESTROOM."
"ON PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION, ANYTIME YOU TOUCH ANYTHING, ESPECIALLY ON BART."
"I THINK IT'S DISGUSTING."
The fear of germs has fueled a hugely profitable growth in anti-bacterial products.
At last count there were more than 700 different kinds of soaps and cleansers, even children's toys, infused with anti-bacterial properties, claiming they can protect you against unseen dangers.
But the truth is, it's impossible to rid our environment of bacteria.
Doctor Tomas Aragon is with UC Berkeley's Center for Infectious Disease Preparedness. He says bacteria are a perfectly natural part of our environment.
Dr. Tomas Aragon/ UC Berkeley: "ONE THING TO REALIZE IS THAT WE HAVE EVOLVED WITH MICRO-ORGANISMS AND IN FACT ON OUR BODY, ON OUR SKIN, IN OUR NOSE, IN OUR INTESTINES, WE ARE FULL, WE ARE FULL OF BACTERIA."
Many of these bacteria are not just along for the ride. They play an important role in keeping us healthy.
But by focusing on these imagined threats, some people are failing to protect against greater health risks. Millions of children are not vaccinated against whooping cough or hepatiitis b and many older adults don't get basic protections against some potentially deadly viruses.
DR. TOMAS ARAGON, UC BERKELEY: "A LARGE PROPORTION OF THOSE WHO SHOULD BE GETTING THE FLU VACCINE DON'T GET IT. A LARGE PERCENTAGE OF THOSE WHO SHOULD BE GETTING THE PNEUMOCOCCAL VACCINE DON'T GET IT."
Every year, tens of thousands of people die from the diseases they could have protected themselves against.
And despite 20 years of preaching safe sex, millions of Americans are still exposing themselves to a variety of sexually transmitted diseases and organisms.
DR. TOMAS ARAGON: "HIV IS SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED, HEPATITIS A IS SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED, HEPATITIS C IS SEXUALLY TRANSMITTED, ALTHOUGH NOT COMMONLY. CHLAMYDIA, GONORRHEA, SHIGELLA, SALMONELLA, CAMPYLOBACTER..."
The lesson is simple.
We need to do more to protect ourselves against the bacterium and viruses that really pose a threat.
As for the everyday bugs and stuff, the most effective approach is also the easiest.
DR. ARAGON: "WASH YOUR HANDS VERY CAREFULLY."
LAILA LAM: "ALWAYS WASH YOUR HANDS BEFORE YOU EAT. THAT'S THE THING, JUST BE CLEAN."
So the bottom line is wash your hands and don't touch your hands to your face.
Adults on average touch their face two to three hundred times a day. That gives all the bad bugs a free ride to your nose and mouth.