Where Germs Lurk in Grade School

Scientists in Michigan have set out to determine the "germiest" surfaces and crevices inside elementary schools. They have learned is that it's not the bathrooms that are the worst.

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Avoiding the germs that can make you sick is nearly impossible, particularly in schools. Kids share their pencils, keyboards, toilets, even food. Scientists in Michigan have set out to determine the germiest surfaces and crevices inside elementary schools. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports what they've learned is that it's not the bathrooms that are the worst.

ALLISON AUBREY reporting:

Microbiologist Rob Donofrio is particularly skilled at sussing out where germs hide. So when Bach Elementary in Ann Arbor invited him in with his testing kit, he went straight to the cafeteria. The first thing he pulled out was a handful of long Q-Tiplike swabs.

Mr. ROB DONOFRIO (Microbiologist): What I'll do is just take a couple swabs, look at the cafeteria tray surface as well as the cafeteria line. It looks like there are some areas that potentially, you know, organisms could be growing on. With food being spilled, you have a wood surface, little bit more porous than the laminate countertop.

AUBREY: Donofrio takes three samples in the area and then heads to the lunch tables. His colleague, Jerry Bowman, moves down to the drinking fountain. This is the second school that their organization, the National Sanitation Foundation, is testing this fall. Some of the results from the first school came as a big surprise.

Mr. JERRY BOWMAN (Microbiologist): Well, the cafeteria trays were very dirty, we were surprised to find, and the drinking water spigots, because they're very moist, they collect a lot of germs, and that was something that we were really surprised to find that they had more germs than, say, a toilet.

AUBREY: The bacteria and mold count on the water fountain spigot was almost 1,000 times higher than the count on the toilet seat. As Donofrio swabs the spigot of a fountain at this school, he says it, too, looks suspect.

Mr. DONOFRIO: You can see there's a little bit of a film that's already present and built up there. You know, it's just something that's not easily cleanable, so you may wipe the outside surface of the water fountain, but if you can't get into that crevice with a disinfectant wipe or a sponge or a cleaner, you know, that, you know, could easily harbor organisms.

AUBREY: Many germs are harmless and some exposure can help kids build up immunity to common viruses. But the higher the bacterial load, or count, that comes on any surface, the more hospitable the surface becomes to pathogens, such as the flu. Donofrio says that's why the drinking fountains and the moist lunch trays are a concern.

Mr. DONOFRIO: So if someone has--a sick child does come through, say, with influenza or some other respiratory type of ailment and they sneeze on that surface, the organism could potentially remain viable for a longer period of time. You know, it would be harbored by those bacterial colonies that are present on that surface.

AUBREY: At Bach Elementary, teachers and staff are trying to be more vigilant about germs. Lunchroom tables are sanitized twice during lunch, and kids use alcohol wipes before and after they eat. Students have the drill down as long as they're supervised and reminded, and this year the school is also introducing a new curriculum in the classroom.

Ms. CAROL DETMER(ph) (Teacher): Has anybody put their fingers in their mouth today?

Unidentified Student #1: No.

Group of Students: (In unison) No.

Ms. DETMER: Oh, please! Anybody?

Unidentified Student #2: No.

Unidentified Student #3: Yes.

Ms. DETMER: Anybody put their finger in their nose today?

Group of Students: (In unison) No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: Instead of lecturing kids about bad habits, kindergarten teacher Carol Detmer is trying to teach them why they should care enough to change their behavior.

Ms. DETMER: All you have to do is think in your head, `Ooh, I remember when I had that cold and I was coughing and I was sneezing and I was so sick and I felt so bad.' Because do you know what? If you wash your hands, a lot of that will go away.

AUBREY: Especially if you wash the right way. To help make this point, Detmer turns to her Macintosh computer and projects a page from a Web-based hand-washing program called Scrub Club onto the chalkboard. It was developed by the scientists at the National Sanitation Foundation as a public service.

Ms. DETMER: I found the coolest Web site. Listen.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Group of People: (In unison) Scrub Club!

(Soundbite of music)

AUBREY: From the site, Detmer introduces her students to a gang of animated characters. One clock-shaped girl called Taki reminds kids to count to 20 while they're washing.

(Soundbite from Scrub Club)

TAKI: Really rub those hands together for 20 seconds. Then...

AUBREY: As Detmer takes her students to the sink to practice washing, she tells them to go back to the Web site on their own time to play the Scrub Club games.

Ms. DETMER: This is something they need to do at home.

AUBREY: Or at media time in the afternoon. The school principal says the student absentee rate will be the best judge of whether hitting the hand-washing lesson hard is worth the time.

As for the results of the germ testing, Rob Donofrio's lab results indicate that Bach Elementary was overall pretty clean. One exception was the cafeteria water fountain spigot, which was loaded with bacteria colonies, a result that may encourage more kids to bring water bottles.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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