Soap may not always be as clean as it seems, suggests a new study, which found that every soap dispenser at an elementary school in Ohio was contaminated with bacteria that are known to cause illnesses. When kids washed with the soap, microbe levels on their hands soared.
It's not yet clear how much of a health risk people face from microbe-laden soap, and public health experts continue to urge regular hand washing as one of the most important things that people can do to stay healthy. But the findings suggest that administrators of schools, gyms and other public places might want to re-examine the kinds of soap dispensers they use and the methods they use to clean them.
The idea that bacteria can grow in or near soap is not new. For years, hospitals have mandated the use of dispensers with replaceable bags or cartridges that contain their own nozzle and are sealed so they can't be contaminated. But plenty of community settings contain dispensers that are repeatedly refilled with pourable liquid soap, and these kinds of dispensers are rarely, if ever, cleaned.
The kinds of bacteria that contaminate soap, particularly in public bathrooms, can cause health problems like rashes, urinary tract infections and eye infections, though the risk is greatest for the very young, the very old and people with compromised immune systems.
For everyone else, it's still best to wash your hands regularly and often, said Kellogg Schwab, an environmental microbiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, who advocated using regular everyday soap over antimicrobial versions and alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
The bacteria that live on us already outnumber the cells in our body, he said, and they aren't necessarily a problem if they sit on our skin. Most microbes have to get inside our bodies to cause illnesses.
"This warrants further research and is worth further discussion and evaluation," Schwab said. "But hand washing for 20 seconds with warm water soap has been documented to be by far one of the single most important things we can do for our health."
All the more reason to carry your own hand sanitizer, I suppose.
Also, I thought "Bactria-Laden" was some nickname for Osama, like "Chemical Ali."