It’s that time of the week (actually, I’m hoping to have an article every Monday)

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/jason-tetro/germs-at-the-office_b_1566350.html

Today, I’m focusing on germs at the office and some novel ways to stay healthy.  It was fun writing this article in light of several other news headlines on the topic of germs in the office.

What I didn’t discuss in the article was that one of the recent stories was that amidst all the germy office articles, there is a difference between the experimental design and that, ultimately, could lead to misinterpretation and fear.

Before I get to that, let me recap how I go about these experiments.  When I head out to my target of choice, whether it be the metro, subway, bathroom, school, office or restaurant, I have my trusted ‘Germ Guy Cooler’ with me.  In that cooler are a number of cotton swabs and some tubes filled with a nutrient solution.  When I swab a surface, I keep the swab itself in the solution and keep it cool to prevent any unnecessary changes in climactic conditions – gotta keep the bugs happy after all.

When I’m finished, I return to the lab and then ‘plate’ the solution, which means that I take a small amount and spread it over a petri plate that contains a specific kind of growth medium.  The result is a plate that hopefully has a number of colonies, each of which represents 1 bacterium (more or less).  Not only does it give me great data that I can use to discuss and also publish, it offers me the chance to have some wild photos taken.

You get the picture.

As for the study that made office germ waves a few weeks back, the researchers did something quite a bit different.  They took the swab, like me, but then they immediately put it into a different kind of solution and then put the entire tube into a machine that looks a little like a tricorder from Star Trek – called an ATP Reader.

SystemSURE PLUS™ ATP Measurement System (ATP Meter)Example of an ATP reader

This ATP reader measures something called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).  ATP exists only in living organisms and can be measured through a chemical reaction that then gives off light – the specific term is luminescence.  This machine measures the luminescence and then outputs a number.  The number is a measurement of cleanliness.

It is not, however an indication of how many germs are actually present.  It only hints at it.

Having tested the ATP system…I know why.  It all has to do with the problems associated with the luminescence, which can be affected by food, liquid, detergents and disinfectants.  If those are picked up in the process of swabbing, the results are going to change.  It’s why I always prefer to go out and swab and culture, even if it means more time and energy spent.  I’d rather know what bugs are present rather than what might be there.

Granted, there are some uses for the ATP reader.  If can definitly help you make really cool looking info-graphics.

INFOGRAPHIC: High Levels of Contamination Found on Common Surfaces. Photo credit: Kimberly-Clark Professional*.Notice how they never used the word, germs?

This infographic tells you what you need to clean your microwaves, refrigerators, water fountains and bathrooms; otherwise known as common sense.  When you go to their website – http://www.healthyworkplaceproject.com/ – this is exactly what they are trying to convey.

From a purely microbiological perspective, however, it’s sadly lacking.

So, the next time you see a study where someone has looked for those germs in the hopes of making you scared, remember two things:

  1. If it’s ATP, it’s only a suggestion
  2. If you don’t see a Latin name, then you have no idea what was there.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you can quit the hygiene altogether.  In fact, I think when you don’t know what’s there, you should be even more cautious.  But I just want to be sure that prudence is based on fact, not conjecture.

As for the study that I discuss in the Huffington Post article…now that had quite a few Latin names, many of which I had to look up because they were so rarely mentioned in my fields of microbiology.  It really was a dream study and I’m happy it was published.

As always, would love your comments.

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