Millions of Germs and Bacteria Await Kids at School; NSF International Findings Highlight the Importance of Handwashing in Illness Prevention

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ANN ARBOR, Mich.  -- American children are back in school, but homework isn't all they're bringing home -- they're likely bringing home thousands of microscopic germs.  NSF International (NSF), an independent, not-for-profit organization, recently collected and tested samples and found as many as 2.7 million bacterial cells per square inch on common school surfaces such as water fountains, desks, computer keyboards, bus seats and cafeteria trays.

"We collected samples from many different commonly used surfaces in a typical elementary school," says Rob Donofrio, director of the microbiology and molecular biology for NSF.  "What we found was that surfaces where one would expect the most germs and bacteria, such as toilets and door handles, actually have fewer germs because they are cleaned and disinfected most often. Other surfaces such as drinking water fountains and headphones, are often overlooked and, as a result, have even more microorganisms."

NSF's findings include:

-- Drinking water fountain spigots had the highest amount of bacteria on the tested surfaces -- 2.7 million bacterial cells per square inch.

-- A cafeteria tray had more than 10 times as many germs as a toilet seat (33,800 bacterial cells per square inch vs. 3,200 bacterial cells per square inch).


-- A student's hand had 1,500 bacterial cells per square inch.

-- Commonly cleaned areas, such as desks and doorknobs had fewer germs (19 bacterial cells per square inch and 5 bacterial cells per square inch respectively), while computer keyboards and ear phones had significantly more at 260 bacterial cells per square inch and 740 bacterial cells per square inch, respectively.

While not all germs are harmful, their existence suggests the presence of viruses and bacteria that can lead to the common cold and flu, or even serious foodborne illnesses such as E. coli and Salmonella.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 164 million days of school are lost each year due to illness -- up to half of which could be eliminated with proper handwashing.

"While these findings are startling, it's also reassuring to know that handwashing is the single most effective way to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria," says William Fisher, vice president at NSF International. "Because kids are particularly vulnerable to the spread of germs and illness, we have created the Scrub Club -- an interactive, online Web site that teaches kids how to properly wash their hands."

Developed by NSF International, the Scrub Club ( ) provides a fun way for kids to learn the importance of handwashing to fight infectious and foodborne diseases.  Each of the Scrub Club kids represents one of the six steps in the handwashing process -- "Hot Shot" and "Chill" combine to make the warm water essential for proper handwashing; "Squeaks" turns into various forms of soap; "Taki" becomes a clock that counts down the required 20 seconds for proper handwashing; "Scruff" reminds kids to clean around their nails; "Tank" turns into a sink to rinse away the germs and "P.T." transforms into paper towels.

The cornerstone of the Web site is a "Webisode" featuring the Scrub Club as they join forces to fight off harmful germs and bacteria, teaching children the proper way to wash their hands along the way.  The first "Webisode," "The Good, the BAC, and the Ugly," finds the Scrub Club battling the loathsome, but loveable character BAC (from the Partnership for Food Safety Education's Fight BAC! public education campaign), and one of his partners in "grime" Sal Monella in a wild-west themed adventure.  The Partnership for Food Safety Education, a non-profit organization, unites industry associations, consumer and public health groups and the USDA, CDC, FDA and EPA to educate the public about safe food handling and preparation.

In addition to the "Webisode," the site features the "Scrub Club Theme Song" and "Handwashing Song" sung by Phil Solem, singer for The Rembrandts (known for the Friends' theme song "I'll Be There For You").  Interactive games "Stop Fluin' Around" and "Big E's Grossest Hits" teach kids how to protect themselves from influenza and E. coli. 

Source: NSF International