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Shedding Light on the Impact of the Microbial Cloud

Jason Tetro
October 13, 2015

microbial-cloudDid you know you have an aura? This isn’t, however, the metaphysical variety caused by our electromagnetic energy. This one is entirely chemical in nature and can be detected not by a psychic third eye, but the nose.

Each and every moment, our bodies are expelling a variety of waste products, from water to fats and unused hormones.  Many of these are volatile  and can simply drift off from our skin into the surrounding environment.  We can actually detect these visually through gas discharge imaging (although they are more commonly called corona discharge or Kirlian photography).  Depending on humidity, concentration, surrounding molecules, and atmospheric pressure, they may even have a colour. 


In the absence of this equipment, we can easily detect these emanations through smell.  Many of these airborne particles are aromatic in nature and can easily spark the olfactory nerve sending a signal of odour to the brain.  As you might infer, several of the chemicals are less than pleasant and contribute to what we normally call body odour.


But volatile chemicals are not the only member of the aura.  If you were to take a closer look with a microscope, you would notice something else.  The area would be filled with a cloud of microbes


Most of our skin contains tens of thousands of bacteria for each square centimetre of surface area.  Some places such as the scalp, hands, and underarm have even more, around a million.  This means the bacterial population on the skin can climb up into the billions.  With each movement, we dislodge these organisms from their home and send them on their way into the environment.  The process, shedding, happens constantly and can range in the millions of bacteria per hour.


Once freed from our bodily form, the individual cells only have a few options.  They can float around and eventually disperse into the air.  They can drop down and come to rest on a surface.  Or, they can find a way back onto or into another human who happens to be nearby.  In the latter two cases, this means whatever bacteria happened to be on us can and, without proper infection prevention and control, will find their way to another person.


This microbial reality isn’t entirely news for infection preventionists.  They’ve known for years the risk of skin shedding and infection.  When it comes to a troublesome skin pathogen, such as MRSA, control of the impact of the microbial cloud is imperative lest infection be transferred through this route. 


But the microbial cloud isn’t only relevant in healthcare.  The transmission of infections through depositions is extremely important in other areas.  Without taking the tenets and practices of infection prevention and control into these environments, infections can occur. 


       Download an Infection Prevention Manager's Guide


Although various areas of human congregation, such as athletic facilities and daycare are at a high risk of cloud-based problems, the most worrisome area of risk is the workplace.  Unlike the other areas, hygiene usually takes a back seat to productivity. 


The office is the antithesis of the healthcare facility.  People go about their business with little care for the microscopic environment.  Microbes are not involved in productivity or profit and as such do not deserve any thought.  Unfortunately, their bodies are still forming and sharing these clouds with the rest of the surfaces and staff. 


The situation is made worse by the lack of any attempt to lower the human microbial burden.  No matter where you look, you are sure to find bacteria, viruses, and fungi lurking in every nook, cranny, and keyboard.  These species can accumulate and eventually transform any room into a microbial mess. 


To combat the effects of the microbial cloud in any environment but particularly the workplace, infection prevention and control systems need to be in place.  They will help prevent traditional cloud-based troubles like colds and flu (when they infect you, they become part of your aura). They will also help keep a lid on other potential pathogens such as dermatophytes and fungi.  Finally, these actions can help to reduce the level of another microbially-sourced trouble, endotoxin.  While this may not cause infection, it has been regarded as a potential reason behind sick building syndrome.  Although this condition may seem as elusive as our metaphysical aura, it is real and causes a significant burden on people causing losses in productivity.


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