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Germ Alert: Protecting Your Family

Using public restrooms; the 5-second rule

Q  What can I do to make sure my kids don't pick up disease-causing germs in public rest rooms?
[ANSWER {Let's start with the toilet: Unless the seat is wet or dirty (yuck), it probably harbors few germs. So you don't need to worry about layering it with tissue paper. What's more important is to turn your face away when you flush, says University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, Ph.D. (a.k.a. Dr. Germ, for his unprecedented studies of which germs lurk where). This is because the droplets that fly when you flush can be full of bacteria and viruses. ("That's another reason to put the lid down at home," says Gerba, whose research shows that in a typical home bathroom, toilet spray contaminates just about everything.)

Of course, be sure your kids wash their hands with soap and water when they're done. And during cold and flu season, it's a good idea to use a paper towel on the doorknob as they leave, since one-third of public-bathroom visitors don't wash their hands.}]

Q  What about the "five-second rule"  -- that it's okay to pick up and eat a dropped cookie, say, if you get it off the floor quickly. Is there any harm in it?
[ANSWER {That depends on where you drop the cookie. "Compared to your kitchen sink, a bare floor is quite safe," says Gerba, who practically shudders at all the germs he's catalogued in drain traps, dishcloths, and sponges. "So long as you clean the floor now and again, I wouldn't worry."

As for food that drops outside, Gerba suggests erring on the side of caution. "Toss it," he says, whether it's been on the ground for five seconds or five minutes. You don't know what got deposited on that spot before you arrived. Beach sand, for instance, is notorious for being contaminated with bird droppings, which can spread intestinal bugs. "Knowing what I know, I never eat off a bare picnic table," says Gerba. "Birds use it as their rest room while they're cleaning up the crumbs the last picnicker left behind."}]

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