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Beware the Germs in the Air

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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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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.