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 Are Your Kids Making You Sick?

 page 2



Later that afternoon we regroup outside the Kelley home. Bryan Kelley is pitching balls to T. J. and a bunch of neighborhood kids. They all use T. J.’s bat, so that’s one of the first objects Gerba swabs. 


Then we head for a favorite fast-food restaurant, which has a big playroom with plastic tunnels, pens and slides. Gerba is one step behind curly-headed Shannon as she crawls through a curtain of clear vinyl streamers into a blue padded playpen. One look at the vinyl strips and Gerba knows he’s hit pay dirt. "Gross! It's a snot shield," he shouts, a little too enthusiastically. “Every kid pushes through this with his face and wipes his nose on it on the way in.” He also tests the blue pen behind the vinyl strips and one of the tunnels. 


While kids and crew devour fried food, the swabbed samples develop. Within minutes, as Gerba guessed, we learn that the vinyl “snot shield” is the most heavily contaminated with bodily fluids. The playpen and tunnel are contaminated too. Those fries that I eagerly gobbled are suddenly not sitting so well. 


The next day, at the University of South Florida lab in St. Petersburg, Dr. Gerba examines the second set of test tubes. “We’re looking for bacteria that originate in fecal material on the surfaces that we tested yesterday,” he explains. “If these bacteria are present, we’ll get a yellow color in these test tubes.” Several samples have definitely changed color. 


Gerba points to the sample he took from the sponge. The fluid is very yellow, as is the sample from the classroom sink. 


What other surfaces are heavily contaminated with fecal bacteria? The fast-food restaurant play area,the school playground and the pull-top from the water bottles that the children had in the classroom. Gerba grins at this last discovery. It’s clear that the school intended to minimize the spread of germs by labeling the bottles. But the plan backfired. “You have to use your fingers to close the cap. Then if bacteria gets on there, it’s going to survive a long time because the cap is moist.” 


Gerba does one final test on our second set of samples, shining an ultraviolet light on the test tubes to search for E. coli, which will glow if present. He finds it in one tube, but not from a sample taken in T. J.’s classroom. It’s on the baseball bat that all the neighborhood kids shared. E. coli bacteria survive only a few hours, but if the kids didn’t wash their hands thoroughly before dinner, E. coli germs may well have spread through several homes. 


Does all this mean the Kelleys have to resign themselves to constant family illness? Or do they have to become cleanliness nuts? 


No, says Gerba. Danielle and Bryan—and other young parents— just need to start playing microbiology detective themselves. 


“Look at your children. What are they touching all the time? Where are their contact areas? What are their favorite toys?” Gerba recommends using disinfectant on places we might not normally think of as germ hotbeds—the refrigerator door, doorknobs, toys. Three or four times a week, he says, clean and disinfect the places that the kids touch most and you’ll protect yourself from a mess of germs. 


And perhaps Danielle should make suggestions to the school, based on Dr. Gerba’s findings. “The playground may be a major germ-transfer zone,” notes the scientist. “That area should probably be cleaned and disinfected on a regular basis.” 


Don’t forget the classroom toys, either. Gerba points to a study in which day-care centers reduced the number of respiratory infections by 37 percent and physician visits by a third. This was accomplished by disinfecting the children’s toys, and other surfaces they regularly touched, three times a week. 


His most important advice? It’s what mothers have advised for centuries: wash your hands—when you come in from outside, before meals, after handling food, after using the bathroom, and any other time you think you might have come in contact with germs. According to Dr. Clean, it’s still your first, last and best defense. 




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NOTE: A different version of this story was published in the Reader’s Digest

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