Tuesday, September 9, 2008

My Other Hat

Sharon Wildwind

This blog has nothing at all to do with writing, other than me not writing for the past ten days because I was laid low low by a sneaky virus. Today I wear my other hat—that of ex-public health nurse—and pass on some tips and research I gathered about unexpected places that we can catch viruses.

Those of us that watch or read forensic-based mysteries know all about splatter patterns, so let’s look at how water splatters affect virus transmission. When I flush my toilet with the lid up, water and things in the water are aerosolized into an invisible spray that forms a cone, which can spread up to a six-foot radius.

Yes, no kidding, six feet. A research study showed this.

Do you have a box of tissues on top of the toilet tank? In all probability, they’re contaminated with microscopic drops of body effluvia. How about a toothbrush and drinking glass sitting beside the sink? Ditto.

So, mom or grandmom was right. Never flush the toilet with the lid up. If your toilet doesn’t have a lid, sit there until flushing has finished.

The other place that splatter pattern is important is in sinks. When I wash my hands, or dishes, or dirty washcloths, etc. under a faucet, microscopic drops of what I’m washing off flies upward and attaches itself to the underside of the faucet. When the next person comes along, what’s on the underside of the tap is washed onto their hands or into their drinking glass.

This isn’t so much of a concern when doing simple hand-washing. If I use soap and running water, I’ll rinse off not only what was on my hands originally, but whatever I picked up from the underside of the faucet.

Getting a drink of water is a whole other matter.

I keep a spray bottle of vinegar beside the bathroom sink. Before I get water to brush my teeth, I spray some vinegar on the underside of the faucet—that little place where the screen is—rub it with my finger, then run the water for a few seconds.

When I check into motel, I clean the underside of the faucet, either with soap and water or one of those antiseptic wipes. There’s a good chance that this is what laid me low. We were on a trip and, for once, I didn’t bother doing it. I mean, the room looked really clean.

If I refill my water bottle or a glass I’ve drunk from under a communal tap or an ice/water dispenser, the same thing happens with saliva. That’s why some ice machines and water coolers have signs that say, “Don’t fill water bottles here.” This is another good place to give a once-over with antiseptic wipes, both before and after you use them.

Speaking of antiseptic wipes, has your grocery store started supplying those pop-up, wet cloths to use to disinfect the cart handles? They work great, but only if the container is closed between people taking a wipe. If the container is left open, the wipes themselves can not only dry out, but become contaminated. A person doesn’t have to cough or sneeze to expel air-borne viruses. Just breathing is enough to do it. So if someone with a cold leaned over the wipe container to pick up a basket and breathed on it, that little piece of wipe sticking out of the top of the container can be full of germs. Help the next person along. Close those containers.

Finally, expect all communal food you haven’t seen opened in your presence to be contaminated, whether it’s those sliced oranges sitting under the plastic dome in the fruit-and-vegetable section in the grocery, or the leftover birthday cake on the table in the break room, or the jar of jelly beans my co-worker keeps on her desk.

If you’re lucky enough to be standing there when the cake is cut or the dip and chips are open, take all you plan to eat then. I’m not too keen on my co-workers knowing exactly how many taco chips I plan to eat, but putting my entire serving in a bowl and walking away with it is a lot safer than coming back an hour later and picking up a second or third helping, along with whatever has landed on the food in the intervening time. And, of course, absolutely no second dipping. Yes, the remaining dip/salsa/etc. really does turn into a bacterial soup.

In the words of the late, greatly-missed Sergeant Phil Esterhaus of Hill Street Station, “Let’s be careful out there.”


Lonnie Cruse said...

Eeek, I knew how far a sneeze could go but NOT a toilet flush. Consider me better educated and determined to shut the lid. Great post Sharon and I hope you are feeling MUCH better.

Marilynne said...

I have been re-educated. Here I thought I WAS being careful.