Sterilizing America: The War on Germs


Sept. 27, 2005 — -- If you're among the nine percent of Americans who now freely admit they don't wash after using the toilet, you should be thoroughly congratulated on your candor, so long as you're not expecting a handshake. Now, where's the antibacterial soap?

Last week came word that scientists have been staking out public restrooms across the country, documenting the potty habits of 7,836 adult Americans, and while 91 percent of our countrymen say they always wash their hands, only 83 percent actually did so.

As if the gender divide wasn't deep enough, the survey, conducted by the American Society of Microbiologists, shows that 90 percent of women washed after using the restroom, compared to just 75 percent of men. The worst offenders, they say, were found at an Atlanta Braves baseball game.

The study may show that many of us need to go back to kindergarten. But it's otherwise apparent in the age of SARS, E. coli and pandemic flu, that a growing segment of America is more hygiene-obsessed than ever – and spending a fortune on a wide range of germ-zapping products, from HEPA air purifiers to toothbrush sanitizers. Last year alone, Americans spent $135 million on antibacterial soap.

If you're not satisfied with bottled water and water filters, consumers can now own their own Water Treatment System -- a $150 devise from Tersano -- that allows you to kill the bacteria and toxins that may reside in whatever it is that's coming out of your tap.

Washing your hands thoroughly is still the single best way to fight the spread of infectious disease, experts say. But if you're still interested in bacteria-busting, here are some new products that are being marketed to help you avoid contact with microbes and clean up your life.

1. Surgical Wrap Public Phone Guards

Remember the good old days when dirty talk involved sex instead of the residue of mucus and saliva on public phones?

Fear of dirty handsets has given rise to SaniPhone covers – made from the same material as surgical masks – that slip over a phone and allow you to make a call with no direct mouth-to-receiver contact. These gauzy guards – sold in $3.95 five-packs – are especially handy in hospitals and other places where cell phones are banned.

You can stretch the elastic SaniPhone covers over your hands to avoid touching unsavory gas pumps and ATMs. Though the manufacturer does not suggest as much, SaniPhone might also be useful with blind dates who insist on a goodnight kiss.

2. Portable Toilet Door Handles

Here's another germ-fighting travel accessory: the Wakmah portable door handle. This powerful but lightweight suction cup with a plastic knob at the end is designed to minimize contact with unsavory public restrooms. Retailing for $5, it fits in your purse or jacket pocket. Of course, when you and your Wakmah handle get home, you may want to strap on some rubber gloves, scrub that thing thoroughly and douse yourself with disinfectant.

3. Sterilizing Washing Machine

The war on dirty underwear may also be fought on a microscopic level. Samsung announced in July that it is introducing the "Silver Wash" line of sterilizing washing machines, which will douse laundry with silver ions that are said to leave a germ-resistant coating that lasts as long as a month.

Samsung is testing the new washer in Asia but has a vast range of "Silver Wash" consumer appliances, including a line of germ-resistant cell phones, which is nothing to sneeze at.

4. Traveling Toothbrush Sanitizer

When you go on vacation, your toothbrush might bring home more souvenirs than you do: millions of microscopic critters making a home in your bristles!

For just that reason, toothbrush sanitizers became very popular in the last year. Now, VIOlight is introducing the first traveling sanitizer – a $30, battery-operated, pencil box-sized device that utilizes the same ultraviolet technology. Pack it away, and you can visit Uncle Louie without coming home with whatever it is that's stinking up his medicine cabinet.

5. Automated Towel Dispensers

You've seen them in restaurants next to the "Employees Must Wash Hands" sign. Now, you can have your very own automated paper towel dispenser, so that your loved ones will never again get their dirty paws over your kitchen and make you sick.

With the new "No Touch" dispenser – the first automated dispenser designed for home use – you just wave your hands under the electric eye and a paper towel (cut to your specifications) pops out of the stainless steel cylinder, which mounts on the wall or under a cabinet. At nearly $300, it's a little pricey. But if you can't prepare restaurant-quality sushi, at least your kitchen can provide an industrial, fingerprint-free cleanup.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at "The Wolf Files" is published Tuesdays.

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