The man in the restaurant bathroom clearly came with a plan. 

He scrubbed his hands under the no-touch faucet for a solid 30 seconds and then vigorously shook the water from them. He stepped past the air dryer (for reasons that will become apparent) and went straight to the paper towel dispenser. 

He ripped the first paper towel from the machine but let that one drop to the floor. He grabbed the second towel and used it to delicately pat his hands dry before dropping that one, as well. 

The fastidious stranger then grabbed a third towel, which he used to grip the handle of the bathroom door, and he did this with all the care and precision of a technician approaching a bomb. When the door swung open, he held it with an elbow and tossed the spent paper towel toward the overflowing trash can. He missed, but maybe you can forgive the fellow for not cleaning up his mess. Had he gone back to pick up that paper towel, he would have had to repeat the whole cleanup routine and God only knows if his date would still be there when he got back to his table. 

In another era, a man like this would have been regarded as eccentric, at best. You would have steered clear of him and remarked to your friends about the weirdo you ran into in the Bonanza restroom. 

But we understand more about germs these days and we know that they’re everywhere. Out to get us. Lying in wait and conspiring to make us all kinds of sick. You can hardly blame someone for doing the germ dance, and especially during cold and flu season. Truly nowhere is safe, not even your own living space. 

“The worst-case scenario,” says Cynthia Smith, of Lewiston, “is when someone sick visits my home. I have a lovely pink velvet chair in the corner of the parlor that I invite them to sit on. I then refuse all help in the kitchen and wash down anything they touched, after they leave.” 

Smith works with the elderly and takes all precautions to keep from making them, or herself, sick. 

Germ dance? Smith is practically Anna Pavlova out there. 

“I wipe down grocery cart handles and if I see a guy hacking, sneezing, etc. in public, I turn and walk away,” Smith tells us. “I wash my hands in the ladies room, before and after I use the facilities, and I use a paper towel to open the bathroom door to leave. I wash my hands every time I come home – it’s the first thing that I do. I don’t set my purse on the ground; instead, I hang it on a chair, a hook, my arm. 

“If I go somewhere gross,” she goes on, “I use hand sanitizer or body spray containing alcohol that I keep in my car. I wipe down the tops of seltzer cans before drinking from them. Instead of handshaking, I’ll pat a person lightly on their clothed arm.” 

There’s more, but you get the idea. Call her a germaphobe if you want to, but Smith hasn’t had a cold since 2012. 

“And I’m still mad at the guy who gave it to me,” she says. 

And here comes Linda Lebrun, of Lewiston. She’s got the germ dance down pretty well, too, and, look out, germs! She’s armed with Handi-wipes. 

“I always wash my hands before I cook or sit down for dinner, even at home,” Lebrun says. “When we are out, I use a hand sanitizer before walking into a restaurant, being careful about touching common surfaces before I sit down at the table. If I’m unable to do that I will go to the restroom to wash up before I start eating or touch anything on the table.

“When one of us is sick in the house,” Lebrun continues, “the other will take care of kitchen duty and we use disinfecting wipes on the common surfaces we all use. I learned a lot of these tricks while our kids were growing up because they didn’t care if their parents got sick.” 

Don’t call them paranoid: Like freedom itself, the price of avoiding germs is eternal vigilance. You’ve got to know what your hands are doing at all times. 

“Probably one of the most important habits is hand hygiene,” says Joanne Kenny-Lynch, system director of Infection Prevention at Central Maine Healthcare. “Our hands touch objects in the environment which can be contaminated with germs. We then contaminate ourselves when we touch our eyes, nose and mouth, because these areas serve as portals of entry into our bodies. Our hands also move ‘hitchhiking germs’ from one object to another and to the people we touch, unless we remove them with either alcohol rub or soap, water and friction.” 

What kind of nastiness are we talking about? Household germs that can make you sick include staphylococcus aureus, yeast and mold, salmonella, e. coli and fecal matter. 

And germs aren’t only hiding in the obvious places, they gather in areas where most of us feel safe and comfortable. Consider your computer mouse, your television remote control, your phone and computer keyboard. Chances are good, they’re filthy with germs as we speak.

In one recent survey of roughly two dozen homes, researchers with the National Sanitation Foundation reported they found yeast and mold on computer keyboards, remote controls, and video game controllers as well as staph on the remote and game controllers, to boot. 

‘BACTERIAL HORROR’ 

Germs are crawling all over the money in your wallet. They’re gathered like armies on light switches and doorknobs you use without you even thinking about it. There are colonies living on restaurant menus, condiment dispensers and, yes, even the soap dispenser itself. 

That’s right: Even the act of scrubbing your hands comes with its own dangers. Ready to dance?

According to a study by the University of Arizona, about 25 percent of public restroom soap dispensers are contaminated with fecal matter. And those hand dryers we talked about earlier? A University of Connecticut School of Medicine study describes “bacterial splatter” and “fecal clouds” being sucked up by hot air hand dryers and then blown over the unwitting person who uses it. 

George Stanley, of Greene, wants to scrub up, surgeon-style, just thinking about it. 

“I wash my hands, my face, my snout and my ears 50 times a day,” Stanley says, “just like the raccoon in my yard.” 

He won’t shake hands with anyone, Stanley says, because shaking hands just invites someone else’s germs into your own body. Who needs it?

Germs have the numbers and the power of invisibility. Given that one study estimates that an average adult may touch as many as 30 objects in a single minute, is there any use trying to battle them at all? 

“Avoiding germs is impossible,” says Kenny-Lynch. “Dealing with their encounters intelligently is the key.” 

And so our readers are out there, contending with germ encounters as scrupulously and deftly as they can. It’s not always easy. We don’t call it the “germ dance” for nothing. 

Angel Marie Haycock, of Auburn, will avoid using public toilets whenever possible. If forced to use one, she will employ all gymnastic feats necessary to hover over the seat. 

She uses disinfectant wipes while wheeling her shopping cart around the grocery store, and just in case, she’ll use her shirt sleeve whenever she needs to touch the cart. An overreaction? Hardly.

The handles of almost two-thirds of the shopping carts tested in a 2007 study at the University of Arizona were contaminated with fecal bacteria. In fact, the bacterial counts of the carts exceeded those of the average public restroom.

You can kind of understand why Haycock is committed to limiting her contact with shopping carts and anything else that might be a playground for germs.

“Maybe it’s because I was so sickly as a child,” she says. “Or maybe it was all my years working in customer service. Seeing the things people do – or don’t do.” 

The online health publication prevention.com also warns of germy dangers on and around kitchen sponges, in microwave ovens, salt and pepper shakers (which are known to be slathered with rhinoviruses and influenza), water bottles, pet bowls, dishwashers, mattresses and pillows.

WHAT, ME WORRY? 

And yet, not everyone is alarmed. When it comes to people reacting to a world of germs, there are varying levels of concern. There are those who don’t outright dance to avoid the world of germs, but who take at least the basic steps to steer as clear as possible. 

“The only practice I really stick to,” says Heather Louise Chisholm, of Auburn, “is if I touch a shopping cart, door handle, anything in a public place, I wash my hands before I touch my face.” 

And then there are those who scoff at all this talk of dancing, hovering and opening doors with elbows – at least half of the people who responded to our query reported they don’t take any pains to avoid germs, and they insist that they’ve never had problems because of it. 

Bridget Eaton-LaRoche, of Lewiston, says she touches public doors with abandon, rarely washes her hands, eats food off the floor, frequently reuses unwashed silverware and more.

“I am one giant germ collection,” she says, “and don’t get sick.” 

“I’m the same way,” says Ayla Odiorne, of Lewiston, “and also never get sick. Neither does my kid.” 

Odiorne and several others take it a step further. By avoiding all germs all of the time, they say, people may be making their immune systems less capable of fighting off nastiness. 

“People kill their biome,” Odiorne says, “their flora, the good and the bad.” 

Jimi Cutting, of Lewiston, tends to agree. 

“I don’t go out of my way to jump into germ-infested situations,” he says, “but I do not shy away from them, either. We build up resistance to germs by being exposed to them. Overall, our bodies are good at that job if we allow it to work.” 

Same with Dave Marquis, of Lewiston. 

“I take no precautions and am rarely sick,” he says. “Germs are good. Germs are our friends.” 

Which, of course, is heresy to those who have turned germ avoidance into a kind of art form. Medical officials, too, seem to agree that one is better off avoiding germs, not befriending them, when at all possible. 

Keep encounters with germs to a minimum, is Kenny-Lynch’s advice. And since you can’t duck them all, keep your immune system strong. 

“A healthy immune system is our greatest defense,” Kenny-Lynch advises. “Simple lifestyle practices such as managing stress, getting a good night’s rest, eating nutritious foods and exercising regularly have been shown to correlate with immunity. Overdoing it can have consequences to your immune system – it’s all about balance.” 

She’s preaching to the choir when it comes to people like our friend Cynthia Smith, who won’t go to a doctor’s office unless absolutely necessary and then will breath only through a scarf as long as she’s there. 

You do what you’ve got to do if you’re out to avoid germs. And even those who have mastered the art of it in some ways may fail at others. 

The man I spied doing advanced hand-washing in that restaurant? He made it out of the restroom, all right, but as soon as he got back to his table, he picked up that germ-crawling menu and even handled the ketchup bottle without any reservations at all. 

Godspeed to you, my germ-dancing bathroom buddy. I imagine by now you’re pretty sick. 

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: