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Dr. Germ: Charles P. Gerba

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Posted 28 December 2007 - 06:51 PM

Charles John Palenik, director of Infection Control Research and Services at the Indiana University School of Dentistry

Charles P. Gerba, PhD, professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona, is an expert on drinking water quality and pathogens in the environment. He has published more than 400 scientific articles and nine books. He developed the first method to test water for the presence of cryptosporidium, a parasite responsible for sporadic outbreaks of diarrhea. But it is his interest in household and workplace microbes that has brought him greater recognition and the moniker ? Dr. Germ. For Dr. Gerba, it all started after flushing a toilet in Houston, Texas.

While a postdoctoral fellow at Baylor University, Dr. Gerba was asked by his advisor to observe a toilet flushing and to note the aerosols generated. Dr. Gerba soon devised a method for studying the distribution patterns of the droplets emitted, and called it a ?commodograph.? Analyses of emissions indicated the presence of high numbers of bacteria and viruses. Microorganisms form biofilms on porcelain surfaces with gradual elution after each flush. The study indicated the presence of fecal organisms on a variety of bathroom surfaces. Air currents moved aerosolized microbes to surrounding areas unless they were blocked by a door. Flushing with the lid down also reduced microbial spread. Dr. Gerba advocated placing toothbrushes within drawers or in the medicine cabinet to prevent contamination.

Few things strike more fear than toilet seats in public restrooms. But are toilet seats truly evil menaces?

Studies performed by Dr. Gerba indicate that toilet seats and door handles are actually the cleanest surfaces in public restrooms, perhaps because they are the two surfaces people avoid touching. The floor was by far the dirtiest, having more than two million bacteria per square inch. Sanitary napkin disposal units were also heavily contaminated. Sinks did not fare well either. Most people seek privacy and tend to use the stalls at the rear of the restroom so fewer bacteria were present in the first stall. Study results indicated fecal bacteria were present on the bottoms of more than 30 percent of women?s purses. Placing a purse on the floor appears to be risky business. Dr. Gerba concluded that contamination of hands is more likely during a restroom visit than is contamination of bottoms. He advocates proper hand hygiene but without the use of hand dryers. Dryers use restroom air and blow suspended microorganisms over your hands. You may actually end up with dirtier hands than when you started.


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