Germs are everywhere, and although you may think you know their most popular hideouts, you might be surprised to find that some places you might never have thought of are crawling with the critters. "People have a lot of misconceptions when it comes to germs," says Charles P. Gerba, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Arizona.
"For instance, if a man wants to shake your hand, you'll be exposed to fewer germs if he just came from the bathroom than from the kitchen," says Gerba, whose nickname is "Dr. Germ." "Our studies show that people have the most bacteria on their hands after preparing a meal, and the least exiting a bathroom."
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Here are six germ hot spots you're likely to encounter that are germier than you think:
1. Gas pumps. Hygienists from Kimberly-Clarke, the company that makes Kleenex, swabbed hundreds of surfaces in six cities and found that about 71 percent of gas pump handles harbored high levels of adenosine triphosphate, a chemical compound that indicates the presence of bacteria and viruses that are capable of transmitting disease. Protect yourself by using disposable clear plastic gloves (the kind restaurant workers use when handling food — you can buy them for pennies at warehouse stores) while pumping gas, or use hand sanitizer afterwards.
2. Buttons. Buttons are everywhere, from elevators to the coffeemaker and drink machine in your office, and they're all germy. Researchers at the University of Arizona found that each key on an ATM is home to an average of 1,200 germs, including flu viruses and E. coli. In elevators, first floor buttons are the most contaminated because they're used the most. You can avoid many of the germs that linger on buttons by punching them with your knuckle (you don't usually wipe your eye or touch your mouth with your knuckle, so the germs aren't likely to transfer) or your elbow.
3. Checkout screens. Touched by hundreds of people every day and rarely — if ever — cleaned, a study at the University of Arizona found that about 65 percent of touch screens at grocery and hardware checkout counters were contaminated with fecal bacteria. One screen in the study contained MRSA — the contagious staph bacteria that's resistant to common antibiotics. Raw meat in leaky packaging is the likely source for much of the contamination. A new study published in Consumer Reports found that 97 percent of chicken breasts bought in the United States have potentially harmful bacteria, and many are multi-drug resistant. Protect yourself by carrying small bottles of hand sanitizer.
4. Restaurant condiment bottles. Restaurant tables are cleaned between customers, albeit sometimes with a damp cloth swarming with germs, but catsup bottles, salt and pepper shakers, and other condiment bottles are almost never cleaned. Take into consideration that most people don't wash their hands before touching them, so they're usually covered with germs from dozens, if not hundreds, of previous customers. Handle bottles with a clean napkin — two layers if possible — since napkins are porous and germs can scoot through.
5. Car gear shift. Cars may be more germ-laden than you think. British researchers found that the average vehicle was home to 285 types of bacteria present from hood to trunk, and every square inch in between. Before the study, Ashton University microbiologist Anthony Hilton thought steering wheels would harbor the most germs, but was surprised to find 356 germs per square inch on stick shifts. Clean it frequently, along with door handles. 6. Purses. A British company found that purses contain more bacteria than the average toilet, and expensive leather purses are the worst offenders because their spongy texture offers an ideal environment for breeding. "Handbags come into regular contact with our hands and a variety of surfaces, so the risk of transferring different germs onto them is very high, especially as bags are rarely cleaned," said Peter Barratt of Initial Hygiene.
"Once these germs are on the bags, they can easily be transferred via hands onto other surfaces." To avoid contamination, wash your hands consistently, and clean handles and other areas regularly.