The 20 Dirtiest, Germiest Places (Aside From Politics)

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Story at-a-glance

  • Surprising numbers of dangerous bacteria occupy common surfaces you touch every day, including restaurant condiment dispensers, menus, ATM panels, shopping cart handles, and many more
  • Hospitals are some of the most germ-infested places you can visit; studies show that pathogenic bacteria, including MRSA, are populating healthcare workers' uniforms, privacy curtains, and even paper used in the clinical setting, in addition to the u201Cexpectedu201D locations, such as hospital bathrooms
  • A new strain of MRSA is now found in livestock at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as a result of antibiotic overuse, which is evidence that u201Csuper bugsu201D are adapting
  • Your best defense against harmful bacteria is to make lifestyle choices that strengthen your immune system and practice good hand washing technique with non-antibacterial soap

What do restaurant menus, hands-free faucets, ATM machines and your physician’s scrubs have in common? They are all among the “germiest” objects on Earth.

Yes, really.

As much as you might like to give the gold medal to toilet seats when it comes to squeamishly germ-ridden locations, science suggests there are much “germier” places that you’re probably frequenting daily.

For example, one study found that each key on an ATM keypad harbors 1,200 germs, including E. coli and cold and flu viruses. The worst button is the “Enter” button, because everyone has to touch it. Flu viruses can survive on hard surfaces such as restaurant menus for as long as 18 hours, according to an article in Mental Flossi. Some of the other dirtiest places and objects might surprise you:

  • Hospitals
  • Lemon Slices in Restaurant Drinks
  • Hotel Room Glasses
  • Kitchen Cloths and Sponges
  • Faucets and Sink Drains
  • Toothbrushes
  • Food Court Tables
  • Fitting Rooms
  • Restaurant Condiment
  • Toy Stores
  • Hotel Bedspreads and Pillows
  • Light Switches
  • Drinking Fountains
  • Wet laundry – after it’s been washed
  • Escalator Handrails
  • Shopping Cart Handles
  • Handbag Bottoms
  • Gadget Shops
  • Remote Controls and Computer Keyboards
  • Door Knobs and Handles
  • Cutting Boards
  • Playground Equipment (Swings, Slides and Monkey Bars)
  • Shopping Cart Handles
  • Makeup Samples

Hospitals are Some of the Germiest Places on Earth

When you see hospital staff in bright, cheerfully colored scrubs and crisp white lab coats, do you think bacteria? That’s exactly what you should think, considering the findings of several recent studies that show hospitals are not the safe, clean environments we’d like them to be.

  1. A study published in 2011 in the American Journal of Infection Controlii found that more than 60 percent of healthcare workers’ uniforms tested positive for potentially dangerous bacteria, including germs that cause pneumonia, bloodstream infections and drug-resistant infections such as MRSA. The samples were obtained from the sleeves, waists, and pockets of 75 registered nurses and 60 physicians at a busy university-based hospital. Eleven percent of the bugs were resistant to multiple front-line antibiotics. This study suggests healthcare workers’ attire may be one surprising route by which pathogenic bacteria are transmitted from staff to patients.
  2. Another 2011 studyiii found pathogenic bacteria – including MRSA – on the privacy curtains that separate care spaces in hospitals and clinics.
  3. A 2009 studyiv showed that pathogenic microorganisms can even survive on the paper commonly used in clinical settings – so the penicillin script your physician hands you may come with its own colony of dangerous bacteria
  4. A 2009 studyv of U.K. nursing homes found 24 percent of residents and seven percent of staff were colonized with MRSA, which means they were carrying the bacteria on their skin (and lab coats) but not  showing signs of infection.

Rates of MRSA in health care settings have been climbing steadily. Statistically, six out of seven people infected with MRSA contract it at a healthcare facility, where the infection shows up in surgical wounds or around feeding tubes, catheters or other invasive devicesvi. However, these “super bugs” are no longer originating only in healthcare facilities. The bacteria are constantly adapting, and now they are being found in livestock that ends up on your dinner plate.

The “Farming” of Super Bugs

Today, as much as 70 percent of all antibiotic use in the United States takes place at concentrated animal feedlot operations (CAFOs), and these factory-scale farms are now brewing a novel strain of MRSA. CAFO animals are often fed antibiotics at low doses to prevent disease and promote growth.

MRSA, short for “Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus,” is a very dangerous strain of staph bacteria that has developed resistance to the broad-spectrum antibiotics commonly used to treat it (methicillin, penicillin, oxacillin, amoxicillin, etc.). Initially, these “super bugs” were coming exclusively from hospital environments, but they’ve now adapted and spread to other public settings, such as schools, gyms, and locker rooms. And now a new strain has appeared in livestock animals as a direct result of antibiotic overuse.

Experts are concerned this new MRSA strain in livestock could begin to infect humans all over the globe.

Realizing that antibiotics abuse threatens public health, the U.S. FDA plans to issue new regulations for the use of antibiotics in the livestock industry by requiring a veterinarian’s prescription before antibiotics can be given.vii

Other countries have also realized the inherent hazards of antibiotic overuse and have opted for a healthier approach to the raising of livestock. For example, Denmark stopped the widespread use of antibiotics in their pork industry 12 years ago. After they implemented the antibiotic ban, a Danish study later confirmed that Denmark had drastically reduced antibiotic-resistant bacteria in their animals and food. This is one reason why I feel it’s so important to support smaller, local farms that raise livestock and poultry without antibiotics, on pastures where the animals graze on natural grasses, as opposed to confined to buildings and fed grains.

Bad Bugs, Bad Bugs… Whatchya Gonna Do?

As hard as you might try, you simply can’t outrun or outsmart the microbes. They’re literally everywhere, including all over you as you read this right now. We are their reproductive vectors – they ride around on us and hop from person to person, using us like an interpersonal railway system. Knowing this, how do you live your life without fearing an attack from every mustard bottle or stationary bike handle you come across?

Relax. You don’t have to worry, as long as your immune system is in good shape.

We have shared our lives with the microbial world for many thousands of years, and we will probably do so for millions more. If your defenses are strong, your body will be pretty successful in fighting off invaders. It’s only when your immune system is compromised that you’re more likely to become ill.

And many of these microorganisms are beneficial – even the pathological ones. Some microbial exposure actually makes you stronger by “training” your immune system to react appropriately, especially when the exposure occurs in childhood. This concept is known as the “hygiene hypothesis.

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