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Can Licking a Handrail Make You Sick?

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How much money would you need to put your health at risk? Ten thousand dollars? Five hundred? How about one single dollar? For a teenager in New York City, the latter was enough to test his fate in a subway station. In a video that has gone viral, a young unidentified teen was offered a dollar to lick the entire handrail of a staircase. Not only did he agree, he appeared to have done so with gusto. While the mere premise of putting one's tongue on anything that is less than sanitary may seem enough to send most into fits of disgust, this video is particularly disturbing considering the germs that have been found on these kinds of surfaces.

Back in 2003, the New York Daily News performed a study to learn exactly what kinds of germs were encountered during a normal commute to work. They tested subway cars and stations, buses, ticket machines and even stairways not unlike the one licked by the young gent. The results were, as the article states, "stomach churning."

In addition to a number of environmental bacteria that posed no threat to the human health, they found a rather unhealthy selection of bacteria from fecal matter, including E. coli, another group of germs responsible for flesh-eating disease, and a few moulds that could lead to a variety of infections including respiratory pneumonia and meningitis.

The Daily News study wasn't unique; there have been a plethora of investigations into the microbial quality of surfaces in urban areas and most of the results have come back the same. In 2005, a group of researchers from the University of Arizona investigated an even wider array of areas including shopping centres, gymnasiums, movie theatres and restaurants and found that all of them had high levels of germs with indications that infectious bacteria and viruses could be present.

In 2010, a local news station conducted an "unscientific" survey of microbes in the Washington DC metro showed that germs were on every surface and could potentially lead to infection. In 2012, I performed a similar set of experiments in the City of Montreal with the same outcomes.

All of these studies underline that not only are germs everywhere, but they seem to be more populous on what are known as high-touch surfaces. The term, used mainly in the field of infection control in health care, is rather self-explanatory however also refers to any surface that may be touched numerous times by different people, such as a handrail, kiosk screen or shopping cart.

In the hospital environment, these surfaces are more frequently and rigorously cleaned, however, in the rest of the world, there is no such consideration; it is without a doubt impossible to keep these surfaces regularly clean. As a result, they are simple considered to be chock full of germs and offer a higher risk of infection through normally touching but especially licking.

While these stories make for great headlines, there is one underlying question that never seems to be answered: can a contaminated surface lead to actual infection? The link has been shown in hospitals but in the rest of the world, there is no definitive study to demonstrate that touching or licking a surface can actually lead to illness. Unfortunately in this case, the verdict may never be known unless the licker comes forward and relates any health problems associated with his stunt.

Yet, there may be hope for a breakthrough: as with any act that goes viral, there will undoubtedly be copycats. If there can be a way to harness these individuals such that they can be named and tracked, there may be a chance to learn whether they get sick and if so, from what germ. If done right, a clinical study might even be possible to finally answer with all the necessary statistical significance whether licking a handrail will actually make you sick.

The best part: clinical trials pay so much more than a buck.