It’s Not Just Beards — the Whole World Is Covered in Poop

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A foul and disgusting idea surfaced last week, one of those things you wish you could instantly unlearn: Men’s beards are, it seems, as “dirty as toilets” and crawling with “poop particles,” according to a study by a New Mexico lab, which the Cut reported on yesterday (though the thing has been pretty much debunked at this point). 

But, really, to focus on beards is to miss the point, said an unimpressed Phillip M. Tierno, a microbiologist at New York University and the author of The Secret Life of Germs. “We, as a society, are literally bathed in feces,” Tierno said. “Wherever a man touches, there are feces and fecal organisms present.” Even to focus on toilets is to sort of miss the point: One study compared surfaces in the bathrooms and kitchens of 15 homes and found that the toilet was among the least bacteria-laden places tested, likely because people tend to more vigorously and regularly clean their toilets.

Fecal bacteria can be found in many of the places you don’t expect, but not so much in the places you do. To wit, here are some stomach-churning examples:

At the office:
A British microbiologist found traces of feces on the keyboards of two employees in a London office. And Charles A. Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist who has conducted dozens of these sorts of gross-out germ studies, has said that according to his research, 40 percent of office coffee mugs contain coliform bacteria, which can be found in feces.

In the kitchen: 
Studies in the home environment suggest one reason swabs of office coffee mugs reveal some vile stuff: The thing you use to clean it — the everyday kitchen sponge — is one of the germiest objects you own. A 1998 study in The Journal of Applied Microbiology, co-authored by Gerba, examined the kitchens and bathrooms of 14 homes over 30 weeks. The results were about the opposite of what you might expect:“The highest concentrations of faecal coliforms … were found in the sponge/ dishcloth and in the kitchen sink drain area while the lowest concentrations were found on the bathroom counter top, on the bathroom floor and on the toilet seat,” the authors write. 

Also, the cutting board you use to prepare your beautiful, Instagram-worthy meals is likely filthy, too. Gerba has said the cutting boards he’s tested have, on average, about twice as much fecal bacteria as what’s found on toilet seats. 

On you:
Another Gerba examination of 26 shoes found fecal bacteria on all but one. The bag or purse you carry around can pick up fecal matter, too, most often on the bottoms; the germs usually find their way there if you set your bag down on a public restroom floor. And — this will surprise no one —  your phone is pretty gross: A recent study from London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine researchers found fecal matter on one in six cellphones they swabbed. That same study found fecal bacteria on 16 percent of the 390 hands tested.

Oh, and then there’s this: “There’s about a tenth of a gram of poop in the average pair of underwear,” Gerba once told ABC News. 

In a hotel room:
University of Houston researchers examined nine hotel rooms in three states, and found fecal bacteria on the following: the TV remote, the lamp switch by the bed, the toilet, the bathroom sink, and the sponges and mops on the housekeepers’ carts. 

And pretty much everywhere else:
Climbing gyms appear to have, as one microbiologist delicately phrased it, a “fecal veneer,” an ever-so-light coating of poo covering the indoor climbing walls, according to a small 2014 study published in Current Microbiology. Gerba has found fecal matter on 72 percent of 85 shopping carts tested at grocery stores in five major metropolitan areas in the U.S.

Saving the unthinkably worst for last, there is likely fecal matter in the very air around us, at least in the winter, found a team of biologists in 2011. In Applied and Environmental Biology, they write, “fecal material, most likely dog feces, often represents an unexpected source of bacteria in the atmosphere at more urbanized locations during the winter.”

There’s no escaping it, in other words. “No matter who you are, I can culture your body and find fecal organisms, part of your natural skin flora,” Tierno said. “Even if you’re fastidious and clean, you cannot wash it away.”

And that’s fine. We’re all walking around, breathing and covered in a fine veneer of poo and yet we’re all (probably!) going to be fine, assures Tierno. “You don’t get sick from feces, per se. It’s only an indicator that there may be pathogenic organisms found,” Tierno said. “It’s disingenuous for people to equate feces with getting ill.” You can get sick from touching or (oh, God) ingesting fecal matter if that fecal matter contains something like salmonella or shigella — and if that’s the case, even a little bit is enough to get you sick, said Kelly Reynolds, a University of Arizona microbiologist. “Many fecally transmitted microbes can cause disease at very low levels (1–10 organisms),” she said in an email. “Since they are typically shed at very high numbers (tens of billions per gram of feces), even small amounts are enough to make people sick.”

Still, Tierno argues, the chances that the fecal matter is pathogenic are low, and you can cut that risk even further if you wash your hands adequately. (That’s soap and water for 20 seconds; you can mentally sing the “Happy Birthday” song to yourself twice, if that’s easier.)

Just use common sense, is the gist of Tierno’s advice. While there’s no need to freak out about the poop-splattered world we’re all apparently living in, there’s also no need to get lax about hand or home hygiene. Don’t eat something right after using something a zillion other people have touched that day, like an ATM. Wash your hands as often as you can, and use hand sanitizer when you can’t. And clean your damn apartment regularly, vacuuming and sweeping the floors and wiping down surfaces. Tierno puts things in perspective this way: “There are people who are ingesting fecal organisms all the time when they practice various sexual positions. You don’t get sick from that,” Tierno said. “I don’t think I have to go into detail for you.”