I err on the germ-phobic side. I like to wash my hands. I shower twice a day.
The thought of banning from my bedroom handbags, shoes, and clothes that have been made unclean by the outside world, was first put into my head by a colleague.
I don’t remember who it was. Only that when I came home that night I went to lower my bag onto the end of the bed, and stopped mid-air, vaguely shivering.
I walk down a main road each evening to get to the bus that takes me home. Looking at my bag dangling there, it was like all the miscreants from my journey, which I had put in my headphones to compartmentalise from, had followed me to bed.
The coughing uni student, the loitering sweaty guy, the snotty child, the years of rubbish and vomit and urine and spilt drinks and god knows what else that builds on that party street like a lacquer.
The dirt of the glorified cattle truck that is the bus (are they ever vacuumed?), the people who go to the bathroom and don’t wash their hands (someone told me they exist) and then go out into the world and get on the bus, my bus, and touch things. Ew.
My neurotic misgivings weren’t totally unfounded. A 2015 study found that 145 out of 180 handbags swabbed positive for bacteria such as micrococcus, staphylococcus and bacillus.
A friend told me she wipes the bottom of her handbag with a disinfectant every week. I treated myself to this activity yesterday and felt a strange wave of perverse calm washing over me.
Our perceived precautions come down to layman assumptions about germs, cooties, nasties; otherwise known as bacteria or microbes.
But apparently, the bugs have already won. We ourselves are covered in bacteria, said Associate Professor Siouxsie Wiles of the Bioluminescent Superbugs Lab at the University of Auckland.
“The reality is, microbes are everywhere and on pretty much everything. Do you put your mobile phone on the bed? Do you have pets that jump or sleep on your bed? Hell, you sleep in your bed and you are covered in bacteria,” said Wiles.
“Being frightened of the microbes on your shoes and handbag is completely misplaced. We will be the biggest source of microbes in our bedrooms – we are covered in them.”
“And some of those will have the ability to make us sick. But that doesn’t mean they will. The riskiest behaviour people get up to in the bedroom in terms of picking up a bacterial disease is having sex without a condom.”
I suppose she knows what she’s talking about (she was nominated for New Zealander of the Year after all). But still, gross.
It’s a thought that none of us really like to have – the reality of the microorganisms which call our bodies home. According to a study by the American National Institute of Health, the human body contains trillions of microorganisms, so many that they outnumber our actual human cells by ten to one.
(An uncomfortable concept for those who, like me, never paid attention in Science. Or Maths.)
Wiles said the bacteria present on our shoes, for example, will be a mixture of the bacteria found on our skin (from putting them on and off) and those found in the environment.
“There will probably be the coliforms found in faecal matter, if walking on surfaces that have had dogs pooing on them,” Wiles said. “And definitely if you’ve managed to step in poo.”
The probability of coliforms on your handbag is about the same as shoes, if they’ve been placed on the floor. Otherwise, any bacteria on your purse would likely come from your own body, meaning they’re harmless.
“Coliforms can make you sick – they are the reason everyone should wash and dry their hands after going to the toilet,” said Wiles.
(See you disgusting non-handwashers flouting the rules, I know you’re out there somewhere…)
So the yes or no to bags and shoes is more personal preference than actual hygiene imperative. This could be considered fortunate.
But a 2013 study in Australia found that adults take an average of 7400 steps per day, which considering all the surfaces we cross on a daily basis, is an awful lot of opportunities to step in poo, if you ask me. Or to lean your bag in it.
At least now science has given me something to meditate on. Wiles has affirmed I have no need to be frightened of putting my purse or shoes in the bedroom, or sitting on the bed in the same clothes I wore on the bus.
“I’m a microbiologist and I keep my shoes and handbags in my bedroom,” she said. “I tend not to put shoes on the bed, but that’s more because they might have mud or dirt on them, not because of microbes.”
Written by Anabela Rea. Republished with permission of Domain.com.au.