Depending who you ask, going to the mall is either a positive experience or a negative one for many reasons. One reason you may not have considered is that with hundreds of people walking around, touching the merchandise, eating and using the public restrooms every day, bacteria spreads easily from person to person.
We all know that proper hand washing is the best way to stop the spread of bacteria; in fact, 80% of germs are spread by hands alone. Let's assume we are all conscious of this and do our very best to properly wash our hands and we assume that others are doing the same. Not quite. In fact, studies show that only 1 in 5 people wash their hands, and of those that do; only 30% use soap. More interestingly, 91% of us say we always wash our hands properly, when research shows that that is clearly false.
So when it comes to shopping malls, assuming most people don't properly wash their hands, where are we most likely to pick up viruses like e.coli, norovirus, influenza and others.
It's obvious right? But you'd be surprised that the typical places you might think harbour the most bacteria are usually the areas most often cleaned.
Surprisingly, the toilet seat has only 150 units of bacteria compared to the worst offender, the sink which has 50,000 units per square inch of bacteria according to Biocote. After washing your hands, you will likely want to dry them; this can also get tricky. If you have the option between the hot air dryer and paper towel – stick to one paper towel as studies show it is a far more superior at reducing bacteria from hands than any alternative. Other areas to avoid are the tap and the first and last thing we touch – the door handle. Make sure you use a paper towel to open the door, or else a respectable hand washing effort will have gone to waste before you even leave the restroom.
Wherever food is present, you have a high risk of cross-contamination and the potential for foodborne viruses. That's why the busy mall food court is one place where we see a lot of varieties of bacteria.
A study conducted by McGill University, CBC Montreal Investigates/Radio-Canada took samples of tables, food trays and garbage bin flaps in several Montreal shopping centers. Their findings showed that while no serious food-borne illnesses were found at the time, there was a large variety of bacteria present. Most were on the flaps of garbage bins, so it's advisable to avoid touching them with your hands. It's also advisable to avoid putting your cutlery or food on the trays.
There's a high chance that your shopping cart or basket has fecal bacteria on it and it's also an easy way to pick up colds or the flu virus. The study performed by Charles Gerba found that out of 85 shopping carts, 50 percent harbored E.Coli, while 72 percent had fecal bacteria. Everyone touches the handle, and it's never cleaned so it's not a surprise it's loaded with bacteria. It's a good idea to carry anti-bacterial wipes to clean it off before shopping, especially if you have small children that tend to touch everything.
Reusable bags have become very popular when shopping because they help reduce the amount of waste that goes into landfills. But when was the last time you washed your reusable bags? For most people, that is a question that has never occurred to them. That's exactly what you should be doing because of cross-contamination. Just think about how often you use those bags you used for groceries to carry things like clothing or kids toys.
A study found that 97% of shoppers have never washed their reusable bag. Of the 84 bags tested, 83 contained coliform bacteria (which comes from uncooked food) along with E. coli in 12% of the bag! The problem is when a meat product leaks into your bag, and you then use the bag to carry non-food items like clothing. You are increasing the risk of spreading bacteria like e. Coli and salmonella. Prevent this from happening by regularly machine washing reusable bags and using grocery bags only for groceries.
Debit Machines, ATMS, and money
One of the last things you do in the mall is purchase something. Whichever method you choose; cash, debit or credit, be forewarned that you will be transferring more than just money.
Cash and coins have long been found to harbor pathogens including Staphylococcus and the flu virus that can live on the surface for more than 17 days on paper money. The bacteria found on money is more than you find on your average toilet seat. That's enough to make some switch to other forms of payment. However, a study of cash machines or ATMS carried out by microbiologists at Biocote revealed that the keypads are dirtier than public toilet seats. The samples retrieved contained concerning bacteria called pseudomonads and bacillus which can cause sickness and diarrhea. Similarly, a New York swab study that tested 66 ATMs in and around the city found that keypads were abundant with bacteria. Most concerning were the ones found in stores that had the highest amounts of lactic acid bacteria, which is found decomposing plants or milk products. Frequently, food and skin were found on the keypads, most likely a result of people not washing their hands after eating.
While we cannot possibly avoid all bacteria in public, it's beneficial to everyone if we all do our part not to spread bacteria. A simple guideline is to avoid touching your mouth or eyes during your shopping trip and to practice good hand hygiene by regularly washing your hands before and after eating and after using the restroom. Carrying an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you for times when you don't have access to water and especially upon leaving the store is also a good idea. Small things like these can help prevent you from picking up more than a new outfit from the mall and can make your shopping experience a more positive one.
- Biocote. Bathroom Study. http://www.biocote.com/case-studies/bathroom/ www.biocote.com
- Deb Group Blog Paper Towels or Hot Air Dryers - Which is Better & Why? www.debgroup.com
- D'SOUZA, Y., CADIEUX, B., COLAVECCHIO, A., RESHMI, R., GOODRIDGE, L., LO, A. & VEEDA, P. 2015. Assessment of microbial quality at four food courts in the Greater Montreal area. Journal of Food Protection, 78, 110-110.
- Gerba, C. P. and Maxwell, S. (2012). Bacterial contamination of shopping carts and approaches to control. Food Prot Trends 32; 747-749.
- Gerba, C. P., Williams, D. and Sinclair, R. G. (2011). Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags. Food Protection Trends, Vol. 31, No. 8, Pages 508–513
- Pope TW1, Ender PT, Woelk WK, Koroscil MA, Koroscil TM. (2002). Bacterial contamination of paper currency. South Med J. 95(12):1408-10
- Holly M. Bik, Julia M. Maritz, Albert Luong, Hakdong Shin, Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, Jane M. Carlton. (2016). Microbial Community Patterns Associated with Automated Teller Machine Keypads in New York City. MSphere . 00226-16
About the Author
Zuzana Bleha is the Marketing and Communications Manager at Deb Canada, the world's largest specialist occupational skin care company and a contributor to the Deb Group's Hand Hygiene, Infection Prevention and Food Safety Blog.