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Jason Tetro


Beware the Germs in the Air

Posted: 02/04/2013 8:45 am

There's nothing quite like the pastime of cloud watching. We can spend hours watching these ethereal formations pass by. We can find shapes in them, try to imagine where they came from -- and where they are going -- and whether or not they are going to open up and douse us with precipitation.

There exists another mental activity that we can undertake during this time: we can guess what germs are living deep inside these floating entities.

It's been known for some time that germs can be found in the atmosphere and they have made clouds a happy home. Despite the rather harsh realities of germ-killing ultraviolet radiation, freezing temperatures, and those horrific free radicals that we keep hearing about in advertisements promoting anti-wrinkle creams, germs have figured out a variety of ways to survive and thrive. But more important than how they survive is the question of which germs are surviving and whether they pose a threat to our health. Over the last decade, a number of researchers have taken on the task of identifying whether or not there are pathogens in our atmosphere.


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  • Where Does It Come From?

    The virus is spread through an infected person's feces or vomit, and often by unwashed hands. "It's not that it's in food, but more often than not, it's in the environment," says Dr. Gerald Evans, a professor of medicine, biomedical and molecular sciences at Queen's University, and the medical director for infection prevention and control at Kingston General Hospital. "You don't want to know how much stuff from people's intestinal tracts is all over the environment."

  • Where Can You Get It?

    The most common places for norovirus to spread are residences where many people are living together — nursing homes, for example, or cruise ships.

  • What Are The Symptoms?

    The clinical syndrome is characterized by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, though for some, it can also include a fever and abdominal pain. It comes on very suddenly — usually within 10 hours of transmission — and lasts one to three days. After three days, it's no longer contagious.

  • Who's At Risk?

    Anyone can get norovirus, but it can be a particularly bad illness for the very young, and the very old. "Healthy people who get it feel awful, but they recover quickly," says Dr. Evans. "The problem is when it combines with other ailments. For very old people who might have other health problems, it can have serious effects, while very young people can dehydrate much more quickly." Interestingly, the virus particularly likes people with the blood group O, which constitutes about 45 per cent of the population. This is thanks to the receptor the virus attaches itself to. If you have another blood type, you can still get norovirus, but the disease will likely not be as severe.

  • What Can You Do If You Contract Norovirus?

    "Lay low and wait for yourself to get better," advises Dr. Evans. There's no treatment, and while medical professionals advise keeping fluids up, Dr. Evans acknowledges this can be difficult, given the nature of the illness. "We want people to try to hydrate themselves as best they can, but it can hard," he says. "Because it's usually just one day, the situation doesn't get too dire, but every so often, we see perfectly healthy adults coming into the emergency room for intravenous fluids to get hydrated again."

  • What Can People Do To Protect Themselves?

    You'll want to practice good hygiene in order to reduce the possibility that you'll ingest the virus, recommends Dr. Evans, and of course, try to avoid being in a circumstance where you can get the virus. "We really encourage handwashing, but I won't tell you will absolutely not get sick if you wash your hands," he says. "Viruses are tiny little particles, and it doesn't always matter how fastidious you are at cleaning things — they get everywhere."

  • Why Is It Such A Concern?

    The biggest problem, notes Dr. Evans, is that the virus is very transmissible, and can easily pass from person to person. It's also quite the trial on your health. "It's very traumatic," says Dr. Evans. "It's amazing how fast it starts, and it's amazing how bad you feel for at least a day or two. Most people who get it would rather have anything else."

  • What Is The Difference Between Norovirus And The Flu?

    The flu is an entirely different illness than norovirus. As Dr. Evans explains, the flu takes place in the respiratory system, while norovirus is a gastroenterological illness. Besides the lack of cough and cold in norovirus, it also has a much short lifespan: Three days vs. the flu's five to seven-day stint.

  • What Is The Difference Between Norovirus And Norwalk?

    Norwalk is an old term for norovirus, says Dr. Evans. "Viruses are always named geographically, and the first norovirus was discovered in Norwalk, Ohio, so it was given that name. It's been since changed to give the group of viruses the name 'norovirus.'"

  • Are There Any Long-Term Effects?

    "As far as we know, there are no long-term effects — it's a very self-limited illness," says Dr. Evans. "The biggest, scariest thing about noro is that you're never immune to it, because there are a bunch of different strains. Once you get it, you can pretty well guarantee you will get it again."

The latest of these studies came out last week from a group out of the Georgia Institute of Technology and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, better known as NASA. The team flew at an altitude of about 10 km, considered officially as the upper troposphere, over several areas of the United States and the Atlantic Ocean during both calm times and also during Hurricanes Earl and Karl. They expected to find some evidence of pathogens as they are known to be contained in the upper atmosphere air of desert dust clouds. They were not disappointed; they found fecal bacteria, including common names as Escherichia and Streptococcus, in over half of their samples. What came as a surprise was the rather significant percentage of these fecal germs in several of their samples. There was little doubt that when it comes to the clouds, their white nature may be deceptive as to their content.

Finding fecal bacteria in the air may be somewhat disturbing but the levels found in these higher altitudes pale in comparison to what we can find in the air closer to the surface. Back in 2007, the air from Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland were sampled for their germy composition and the results were rather shocking. Over the summer months, the bacterial diversity was strong with soil and vegetation making up most of the population. But when the seasons changed and the snow covered these bacteria, one type of bacteria ruled the air: canine fecal bacteria. Or, if you wish, dog poop.

While the explanations for these findings were understandable, including a high dog population in the area and the inferred problem of an improper poop-and-scoop policy leaving the feces to stay outdoors, the reality in addition to the cold air, there was some warm feces in every breath.

In addition to canine fecal matter, there are also human pathogens in the air. Back in 2003, a similar sampling was performed in Austin and San Antonio to identify if there were any threats in the air -- remembering that this was shortly after the 9/11 attacks and also the anthrax attack of 2001. They found evidence of anthrax and other possible bioweapons including botulism and the lesser known but rather vicious Arcobacter although none at concentrations worth causing alarm. But they also found evidence of the number one foodborne pathogen in the United States, Campylobacter at concentrations that could potentially be problematic. Again, there was no need for alarm bells but the study did point out that when it comes to air, the threat may always be there.

Yet the biggest risk to your airborne health is not in the upper troposphere or even in the local dog park, it's in the home and more specifically, the bathroom. The toilet is an undeniable addition to improved sanitation but many people forget that in most cases, there are two lids. The bottommost one is usually put down during but the top lid needs to be put down right before the flush. If not, the rush of aerosols emerging from the water is no different than the turbulent rise of seawater encountered during a hurricane. As a result, those fecal germs that had left your body are given an opportunity to return either through inhalation or through deposition on everything including towels, grooming products and of course, the toothbrush.

Although the risk may be low, there have been studies that show that a lidless flush could mean a higher incidence of C. difficile and norovirus.

While a lidded flush may be easy to adapt to, there are some who quite simply relish watching the toilet whirlpool during a flush and may have an issue with using the lid. For these individuals, the best suggestion might be to head outside and enjoy a little cloud watching. It's just as fun, just as germy yet won't put you at any risk.


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