Keep the Germs Off My Fork! : The Scientific Evidence ‘Under’ the iFork
“Most bacteria can live on surfaces for at least a week, and in some cases, up to months. And most viruses can survive on surfaces for hours to days.”
– Peter Iwen, PhD.
More than 40% of 550 foodborne disease outbreaks reported by the CDC were attributed to restaurants from 1993-1997.The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases in 2011.Bacteria and viruses, commonly referred to as germs, can live on surfaces, such as tabletops, kitchen countertops, picnic tables, and desktops, and in turn, can spread from tabletops, utensils, and food upon contact to a person’s hand and mouth. These same germs can cause colds, the flu, foodborne illnesses, and other infections. While we do not have estimates of how many people get sick from bacteria and viruses found specifically on tabletops and surfaces, we do know:
According to Dr. Charles Gerba, Professor and leading expert in environmental micrbiology, Univ. of Arizona: “In fact, our studies have shown that many of the germs we find on public surfaces, and even in the home, absolutely will make children sick with no meaningful benefit of increased immunity.”
Examples of germs are known to live on surfaces:
- Influenza A – survive up to 48 hours
- Noroviruses (causes vomiting and diarrhea) –survive for up to 12 hours
- Rhinoviruses (cause of common cold)
- E.Coli and Salmonella
- Staphylococcus aureus- survive for one day on cotton, polyester, terry cotton, and plastic
- Methicillin-resistant Stapylococcus aureus (MRSA) – survive weeks to several months on most surfaces
- Vanomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) – survive for several days
How are these germs transmitted?
- Respiratory droplets from sneezing and coughing land on surfaces and then are touched
- Contact transmission – primarily indirect in which hands or mouth come into contact with a contaminated object or a surface.
Charles Gerba, PhD and other experts have conducted numerous scientific studies and published books on the presence on and transfer of germs from common surfaces in our everyday lives. Tabletops, where we rest our utensils, have been found to be one of the most germiest places.
Where are these germs found?
- One study conducted by Dr. Gerba and his team revealed that restaurant tables (268 colony forming units per square inch) had more than double the bacteria count of the diaper changing tables tested (106 colony forming units per square inch).
- Reynolds and others conducted a study that examined environmental surfaces from public places such as shopping malls, restaurants, and daycare centers. Six surface sites sampled tested positive for fecal coliforms (bacteria mainly found in feces) including tabletops and condiment containers.
- Many restaurants clean (to remove germs) but do not disinfect (to kill germs) their tables. According to NSF Inernational, a non profit public health agency that developed standards for sanitation, cafeteria and restaurant trays, in which utensils are placed, had more bacteria than commonly cleaned places like bathrooms.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Preventions rates one of the top five ‘critical violations’ in restaurants is insufficiently sanitized food contact surfaces. The Center for the Science in Public Interest (CSPI) via a survey found that improper use of wiping cloths was a concern for consumers.
- Another study by Yepiz-Gomez looked at dishcloths used to wipe tables in restaurants to determine the occurrence of bacteria. Coliforms (bacteria) were isolated from 89.2% of dishcloths and 70% of tabletops. E. coli was isolated from both dishcloths and tabletops. E.Coli is the same bacteria found in fecal matter. E.coli numbers on tabletops were found to be 19 times higher after wiping.
- In a study by Enriquez, 75 dishrags and 325 sponges harbored various bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, Pseudomonas, and Staphylococcus aureus. All bacteria responsible for foodborne and/or respiratory illnesses.
Parks and Recreation
- According to the GOJO “Germ Survey” by Gerba, the picnic table has more germs than a port-a-potty which may be related to the frequency in which each is cleaned. However 76% of the public guessed the port-a-potty to have more germs.
- "They are never cleaned or disinfected and birds like to roost on them, especially on picnic tables near a pond or in the shade," says Gerba told WebMD, a professor of environmental microbiology who has collected thousands of germ concentration samples for dozens of studies. "You should never eat from a picnic table, or even touch the surface, unless you have your own tablecloth."
- The germiest place at school (K-12) was found to be the cafeteria table after testing classrooms and surfaces in six schools.
- According to Dr. Aliza LifShitz from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, "Some bacteria, are capable of causing infections and tend to collect on frequently touched surfaces – particularly in areas where there is a lot of hand-to-mouth contact like the cafeteria table."
- NSF International found that the cafeteria tray was in the top ten germiest places in a school with a ranking at #3 with 33,000 CFU per square inch.
- In one classroom study, Bright and others found that 18.5% of the student desktops were contaminated with Influenza A.
Office setting (desks)
- Dr. Gerba and his colleagues have found the parainfluenza virus, a common cause of colds and flu, on about one-third of office surfaces. These viruses can survive two or three days on desktops, phones, and keyboards.
- “The desk, in terms of bacteria, is 400 times more dirty than your toilet," said Dr. Gerba to WebMD. "People turn their desks into bacteria cafeterias because they eat at them, but they never clean them. The phone is the dirtiest, the desktop is next, and the mouse and the computer follow."