Just eat it already

Damn, I love Aaron Carroll.  Here’s a great Upshot post on why he eats food off the floor.  I do to.  It occurred to me that I’ll think nothing of helping my daughter put her shoes on or picking something up off the floor before eating.  And, really, there’s not that much difference between either of those than just picking the frosted mini-wheat up off the floor.

Yes, regular hand-washing is important, but, at some level, you’ve got to just chill and accept that we’re totally surrounded by bacteria and just do what you can to keep your immune system healthy (personally, I’m a fan of fruits, vegetables, exercise, fortunate genetics, and enough sleep).

Anyway, Carroll makes the point that there’s way more bacteria to worry about in places other than the floor.  Like places you touch with your hands:

Our metric shouldn’t be whether there are more than zero bacteria on the floor. It should be how many bacteria are on the floor compared with other household surfaces. And in that respect, there are so many places in your house that pose more of a concern than the floor…

They found that the kitchen floor was likely to harbor, on average, about three colonies per square inch of coliform bacteria (2.75 to be exact). So there are some. But here’s the thing — that’s cleaner than both the refrigerator handle (5.37 colonies per square inch) and the kitchen counter (5.75 colonies per square inch).

We spend so much time worrying about what food might have picked up from the floor, but we don’t worry about touching the refrigerator. We also don’t seem as worried about food that touches the counter. But the counter is just as dirty, if not dirtier.

The same thing happens in the bathroom. I know a lot of people who are worried about the toilet seat, but it’s cleaner than all the things in the kitchen I just mentioned (0.68 colonies per square inch). What’s dirtier in the bathroom? Almost everything. The flush handle (34.65 colonies per square inch), the sink faucet (15.84 colonies per square inch) and the counter (1.32 colonies per square inch).

Things get dirty when lots of hands touch them and when we don’t think about it. We worry about the floor and the toilet seat, so we clean them more. We don’t think about the refrigerator handle or the faucet handle as much…

The alternative is to realize that for most of us, our immune systems are pretty hardy. We’ve all been touching this dirty stuff for a long time, without knowing it, and doing just fine.

I clearly fall into the latter group. If I drop food on the floor, I still eat it. I do that because the harm I might get from the floor is not worth my concern compared with many, many other things. You may feel differently. Either way, make an informed judgment based on relative risks, not on any arbitrary span of time that one thing has been touching another.

So, there you go, eat that food off the floor.  Oh, and maybe clean some of those much-handled surfaces more often.  I know I’m going to be looking at that refrigerator handle :-).

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Just eat it already

  1. Jeremy Tarone says:

    I have a cat and a dog. The first uses it’s paws in it’s litter box. The second blithely walks on other dogs feces. Many dog owners don’t pick up their dogs feces. When it rains it spreads out like a big invisible pizza. All that E Coli, spread all over the side walk. And it stays there until the rain, several days worth, washes it away.

    You know, the E Coli that gives you bloody diarrhea and projectile vomiting. E Coli that tends to either kill you, or make you wish you were dead.

    So I don’t eat food dropped on the floor unless it can be washed and or cooked first. No more than I would if I dropped food in the toilet.

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