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GERM WARFARE; BACTERIA-CARRYING BODILY FLUIDS ARE EVERYWHERE, SCIENTISTS WARN.

Byline: Janet Zimmerman Staff Writer

Home, sweet home? Hardly.

On that seemingly spotless kitchen counter and in the cracks of our TV remotes lurk invisible germs just itching to give us colds, intestinal ailments and a host of other health problems.

These tiny enemies are tracked into our homes from almost everything we touch at the supermarket and the bank, on the elevator and the bus, say researchers of a recent public health study out of the University of Arizona.

It was the first study to look for the presence of bodily fluids outside the home. The findings surprised lead researcher Kelly Reynolds, an environmental microbiologist.

``Some of these things are just horrifying,'' Reynolds said. ``I know there are things I can do to minimize risks for my family, and I'm starting to do them. This is the first study I've done that has changed my behavior.''

Reynolds now carries a gel sanitizer in her purse and always washes her hands before she touches her 6-month-old daughter and before she eats. But there are many people unaware of how important such precautions are, she said.

``Just visualize how long an escalator belt is. We sampled a 2-inch-square area and found mucus and blood. Imagine what the contamination is all along that handrail,'' she said. ``It deserves at least some consciousness that it's there and how risky it is.''

So how risky is it?

Of the 800 surfaces tested in San Francisco, Chicago and Tucson, Ariz., one-fifth were contaminated with mucus, blood, urine, sweat or saliva. The bodily fluids carry viruses and bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and staphylococcus, that can lead to the flu, herpes, diarrhea, hepatitis A and skin infections.

More shocking than finding cooties on shopping cart handles and vending machine knobs is the way we track them home, Reynolds said.

Scientists in the study used a special dye to see what participants touched and how germs spread. They found a path from office door handles to cars, keys, front doorknobs, light switches, TV remotes, kitchen counters, faucets and wallets. The microorganisms were spread from hands and by purses and grocery bags set on top of counters, she said.

The single worst offenders were day-care centers, where 65 percent of surfaces tested positive for filth, and 46 percent had at least one bodily fluid present. They were followed on the grime scale by children's playground equipment, shopping malls and banks.

Reynolds said observations she made during the study were quite alarming.

She saw one customer scratch his head with a pen at the counter, and a subsequent customer chew on it. She watched children run back and forth from park playground equipment to lunch without washing their hands. She also saw how blood from a package of meat went from a customer's hands to the shopping cart handle, which was then chewed on by a baby.

``I was surprised to see how, if people do know about this contamination, they haven't changed their behaviors to compensate for that,'' Reynolds said.

The areas where people are most concerned about germs - the bathroom and kitchen - are the cleanest because people tend to disinfect them regularly, she said. It's the areas we don't think about, such as the underside of a chair at a restaurant, a phone receiver and a toilet handle, that pose the most risk.

We touch an average of 300 surfaces in every half-hour of activity, and many of them are spots that never get disinfected, Reynolds said. That contributes to the 75 million illnesses in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That knowledge frightens Emily Chase, a Redlands mother of two, ages 8 and 5.

With all the news about E. coli and salmonella, Chase has become extra cautious about staying germ-free. She and her family take off their shoes before going in the house, they use anti-bacterial soap and paper towels instead of sponges in the kitchen. Chase also wipes off the mouthpieces when she has to use someone else's phone and keeps anti-bacterial wipes in the car.

Her viewpoint was strengthened by Donald Trump's confession that he no longer shakes hands with people while he's dining in public because of the germs.

``You don't want to be freaky about it, but I bet there are a lot of people who aren't aware of what they can do to keep from getting sick,'' Chase said.

The study was partly funded by Clorox to publicize a new disinfecting spray that promises to kill bacteria and viruses for 24 hours after application. It is the latest weapon in an arsenal of anti-bacterial home products that include everything from soaps and toys to cat litter and cutting boards.

But this growing trend toward everyday use of antibacterial products also raises fears that overuse can lead to super bacteria that are resistant to such germ killers. Experts advise everyone simply to wash hands regularly with soap, keep hands away from the eyes, nose, mouth and ears, and regularly clean surfaces with soap and water.

That routine is especially important to remember during flu season, which runs from now to April, said Kim Woods, an epidemiologist.

``What we really need is soap and water, a little friction and drying. That's the best thing,'' Woods said. ``One of the best preventive measures is hand washing.''

When should you wash?

Before you:

Prepare or eat food.

Treat a cut or wound or tend to someone who is sick.

Insert or remove contact lenses.

After you:

Go to the bathroom.

Handle uncooked foods, particularly raw meat, poultry or fish.

Blow your nose, cough or sneeze.

Play with or touch a pet, particularly reptiles and exotic animals.

Handle garbage.

Tend to someone who is sick or injured.

How should you wash?

Use warm or hot running water.

Use soap.

Wash wrists, palms, back of hands, fingers and under nails.

Rub hands together for at least 10 to 15 seconds.

When drying, begin with forearms and work toward fingertips; pat skin rather than rubbing to avoid chapping and cracking.

Source: American Society for Microbiology

CAPTION(S):

3 Photos, box

PHOTO (1 -- cover -- color) Microcosmic monsters - The shopping cart handle, the doorknob, the stair rail - almost everything you touch can make you sick.

Shaun Ellsworth/Staff Artist

(2) These bacteria are part of a controlled scientific experiment, but there are plenty of nasty germs lurking in the bodily fluids that scientists say are all around us.

(3) Signs near escalators encourage shoppers to hold the handrail, but researchers say they found both mucus and blood on a sample 2-inch square of the rubber belt.

Tom Mendoza/Staff Photographer

Box: When should you wash? (see text)
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 6, 1999
Words:1116
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