New York University Director of Clinical Microbiology, Dr. Philip Tierno, takes swabs and cultures bacteria on several surfaces that NBC's Matt Lauer touches, and gives instruction on the proper way to wash your hands.
A Germ-Hunter Takes Swabs from Everyday Surfaces: How Dirty Is What We Touch?
MATT LAUER, co-host:
Dr. Philip Tierno is director of Clinical Microbiology at the New York University Hospital Center and the author of "The Secret Life of Germs." For Dr. Tierno, the first line of defense is in the bathroom. It's estimated that less than 50 percent of people wash their hands after using the facilities, and of those who do, very few do it correctly. So I was in for a lesson.
Dr. PHILIP TIERNO: It takes 20 seconds to appropriately wash your hands, getting in between your fingers and getting on the top of your knuckles, getting under your nail bed with at least one swoop each time with—with a lot of soap on, and rinsing. The CDC recommends singing Happy Birthday two times for an effective wash.
LAUER: All right. So I open the door using the paper towel and walk out germ-free?
Dr. TIERNO: Yeah, relatively speaking. Throw it away.
LAUER: Throw--but there's no garbage can.
Dr. TIERNO: Throw it right here. Soon, there will be a garbage pail.
LAUER: You mean they'll get the message?
Dr. TIERNO: They'll get the message.
LAUER: An experienced microbe hunter, Dr. Tierno's going to help me see what biological crime scenes I encounter every day. He'll swab selective surfaces and then grow what he finds in his lab. We started at the ATM.
All right, I just grabbed $20 from the ATM. What did I expose myself to?
Dr. TIERNO: Let's culture that and find out. Ooh, nice and dirty.
LAUER: That's dirty.
Dr. TIERNO: Very nice.
LAUER: That's really gross, actually.
Dr. TIERNO: This will be positive.
LAUER: Then, a ride in a New York City cab.
I'm sure you're going to tell me something that's going to freak me out in here.
So many surfaces, so many riders, so many chances for contamination. But how about the subway? It's more popular, used by almost seven million riders every day.
So people get in the subway, they--they reach up and they grab this all the time. What might be found up here?
Dr. TIERNO: You pick up the entire flora of humanity that has passed this way, including feces, fecal flora, skin flora and respiratory secretions.
LAUER: So when you walk out of here, that's on your hands?
Dr. TIERNO: That's on your hands and some of it might be bad.
LAUER: It all sounds bad to me.
An escalator, a haven for hands and possibly germs and bacteria.
The gym, this is where you come to get healthy. Can it make you sick?
Dr. TIERNO: Where man touches, they can obviously leave behind traces of that touch.
LAUER: Not just sweat. We're not talking about sweat here. We're talking about the other nasty things you've been talking about.
Dr. TIERNO: Right. We talk about germs that come from the mouth, the skin or feces.
LAUER: Why don't you swab my hand and let's see after you get back to
the lab how that turns out.
Dr. TIERNO: Well, let's do a good job. Don't pull away here.
So the samples went back to the lab where they were cultured and allowedto grow for a few days.
All right. So--so we have fecal matter.
Dr. TIERNO: Fecal matter.
LAUER: So what could all these things do to you?
Dr. TIERNO: Generally, what we found does not cause harm in an average, normal individual. But what it means is where you find feces, you can potentially find other organisms, other germs that are potentially dangerous, like the Norwalk virus or some salmonella or--or--or shigella or even hepatitis A.
LAUER: And what we're talking about is you go to get into that taxi, you put your hand down on the seat and you slide across, you tell the cab driver where you want to go, and now, by accident, you touch your mouth or you mouth your eyes or something like that?
Dr. TIERNO: Or you forget to wash your hands and you eat your food and you can ingest these pathogens.
LAUER: Which means, in layman's terms, you go to funky town, you have a chance of getting sick.
Dr. TIERNO: Big time.
LAUER: Surprisingly, the subway was nearly spotless, thanks to a thorough cleaning and the cold weather, which isn't ideal for germs or bacteria.
The ATM. What did you find there?
Dr. TIERNO: Respiratory flora predominantly. Some environmental organisms.
LAUER: What does that mean, respiratory flora?
Dr. TIERNO: Mouth flora contamination.
Dr. TIERNO: Spit.
LAUER: The things in your spit. We took a ride on an escalator, you know, and the sign always says, "Hold the hand rail." What was on that hand rail?
Dr. TIERNO: Respiratory flora, people cough and then touch the rail. It ha--it didn't have any fecal organisms, and I was surprised at that.
LAUER: What a pleasure.
Dr. TIERNO: This is yeast.
Dr. TIERNO: This is candida albicans, probably vaginal in origin. But usually it's part of the normal flora.
LAUER: And that was on the hand rail?
Dr. TIERNO: That was on the hand rail. And these are hardy organisms.
LAUER: So just when I was feeling good that there was no fecal material there...
Dr. TIERNO: Right.
LAUER: ...we went to the gym. You said this is a place where you can find a whole host of nasty things. What did you find?
Dr. TIERNO: There was some staph aureus and some staph epidermidis, and you can find an aureus on the skin or in the nasal--the nose. It was relatively mild and not much there.
LAUER: So at the end of our germ tour, you swabbed my hands, OK, to see what I had picked up and what might be growing on--on my hands. What did you find?
Dr. TIERNO: Actually, your--your hands had no growth, which was quite amazing in and of itself.
LAUER: I didn't cheat, by the way. I did not wash my hands from the time I met you till when you swabbed them.
Dr. TIERNO: Your hands were not moist and you were not sweaty.
A new study appears to validate what every 12-year-old knows: If you drop food on the floor, you have five seconds until it becomes contaminated.
Biology students at Aston University in Birmingham, England, tested the time-honored five-second rule and claim to have found some truth to it. The faster you pick food up off the floor, they discovered, the less likely it is to contain bacteria.
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