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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

What's Lurking in Your Bathroom?

     Household cleaner ads on TV depict bathrooms as being invaded by bacteria, mold and fungus in alarming amounts. They're covering your tub, toilet, and shower. They also find a great home on your toothbrush, so every time you brush your teeth you are shoving a huge amount of stuff, especially fecal coliform, into your mouth. Actually, there are ten times more germs than body cells on the human body. Fortunately, most germs are perfectly harmless to us. Most, but not all. So what harmful germs live in your bathroom? 
     Every time you flush a toilet an aerosol spray of tiny tainted water droplets is created. So if you leave your toothbrush in the vicinity of a toilet, does that mean it's regularly bathed in bits of fecal matter? 
     The television program MythBusters covered a bathroom with 24 toothbrushes, two of which they brushed with each morning while the others were simply rinsed every day for a month. As a control they also kept two untainted toothbrushes in an office away from the bathroom. After one month all the toothbrushes were sent to a microbiologist for bacterial testing. 
     The results? ALL the toothbrushes were covered with microscopic fecal matter, including the ones that had never seen the inside of a bathroom. It seems fecal bacteria is everywhere.
     In one study four public restrooms were checked out. Despite regular cleaning the facilities were loaded with bacteria and viruses. It didn't matter much. Within one hour the bathrooms were completely recolonized with microbes with fecal bacteria dominating. Surprisingly, the fecal bacteria wasn't just on the toilet seats...it was also found on...soap dispensers! 
     There was one set of live bacteria in overwhelming abundance: Staphylococcus. Staph's persistence in these studies points to its power as a potential pathogen. Various versions are common on human skin and inside the nose and other orifices and they generally cause no problems, or trigger only minor skin infections. But staph infections can be serious, or even kill, if the bacteria get into bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart. And one version, MRSA, is resistant to common antibiotics and can be very dangerous. 
     Fortunately, in the public toilets the researchers found the Staph showed no signs of being antibiotic resistant, but were relatively harmless. They did find genes from MRSA lurking on the floor, as well as traces of some viruses like herpes. There is little cause for alarm because all our environment contains pathogens-everything. 
    Gastrointestinal viruses that cause stomach ailments in humans. These include the norovirus, which you may have heard of in connection with cruise ship outbreaks. These viruses aren't just on cruise ships; they can live on your toilet seat and can remain there for as much as long as a week. 
     Then there are enteric pathogens, which are organisms spread by contaminated foods and can be carried in feces. These include things like E. coli, salmonella, shigella, and campylobacter. E. coli is particularly nasty, causing severe diarrhea with bloody stools. 
     Skin and respiratory organisms, such as staph bacteria, including the antibiotic resistant MRSA strain, and Group A Strep, known as the "flesh-eating" bacteria can be in there, too. Then there's dermatophitic fungi, like athlete's foot. Fungi (mold and mildew) don't cause infection, but they can exacerbate asthma and allergies.  
     As bad as this sounds if you clean regularly and practice basic hygiene there's very little risk from bathroom germs. By following good personal, household, and food hygiene, you're at pretty low risk. 
     Regular cleaning of bathroom floors and solid surfaces with a disinfectant cleanser on a weekly basis plus a thorough scrubbing about once a month will keep risk at a minimum. But if someone has the flu or diarrhea it's good idea to clean more often. When choosing a cleaner choose one with bleach. 
     Pay special attention to the toilet bowl because a biofilm grows after just a few hours with any germ, even normal flora, which can allow household pathogens to survive even with chlorine in the water. So scrub that bowl with soap, disinfectant, and a brush once a week. Let the bleach sit on the bowl and seat surface for a good 10 minutes before rinsing with soapy water. 
     Keep shower walls and floors free of mold and mildew. Shower curtains should have a liner and it should be changed every three to six months. 
     Don't reuse sponges that have been used for cleaning. Used sponges can be nasty...they can harbor bacteria and leave surfaces with more germs than when you started.

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