A supermarket lost $35,000 worth of food after a woman coughed on it on purpose, The Washington Post reported. Food in the produce, meat, and bakery sections of the Pennsylvania grocer had to be completely thrown away. What misconceptions surround germs and hygiene?
As the world continues to implement suggested quarantine measures to combat the coronavirus, the public is stocking up on food and toiletries. Supermarkets have been under considerable stress to keep shelves stocked as supplies have dwindled while full-blown panic shopping has shoppers hoarding toilet paper, paper towels, and more. Now, the public’s fear of spreading germs has given rise to a trend of people intentionally spreading germs and stoking panic. One woman in Hanover Township, Pennsylvania, set her sights on Gerrity’s Supermarket on March 25.
“A woman came in and deliberately coughed all over the produce section, meat case, and bakery department,” the Post article said. “When employees realized that she appeared to be intentionally coughing on food, they escorted her out and called the police and local health inspectors.” According to the article, employees had to throw over $35,000 worth of food in the garbage while every area of the store she had visited was “stripped bare, sanitized, and disinfected.”
Gerrity’s co-owner Joe Fasula said the woman was likely just pulling a nasty prank, but the store would rather be safe than sorry. It can be helpful in times like these to separate facts from fiction regarding germ spread.
Germ Mythology and Terminology
Medical myths and confusing terminology have gotten in the way of non-experts having fully formed knowledge on subjects like viruses and their remedies.
“Many people think that antibiotics will work against many different types of infections—will work against the cold, for example—but in fact antibiotics work only against bacteria, not other kinds of germs,” said Dr. Steven Novella, Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine.
He also added that while antibiotics only work against bacteria, they also don’t necessarily kill all of the bacteria. Instead, many antibiotics merely stop the bacteria from reproducing, which gives our immune systems the time they need to kill the bacteria themselves.
Dr. Novella also distinguished between several different, but important, terms used when discussing how to stop germs, which are often used interchangeably. “The word ‘antimicrobial’ does refer to any drug or substance which will kill any kind of germ, while ‘antibiotics’ refer specifically to bacteria,” he said. “Antiseptics are things that can kill bacteria or germs, but outside the body—they are not generally safe to take internally.”
21st-Century Snake Oil
“One common myth that is offered as an alternative to treating an infection are supplements or products that ‘boost the immune system,” Dr. Novella said. “Now, whenever you see that claim made for a product, you have to realize first that that claim is often not regulated—companies do not have to provide evidence to support that claim. It’s something they’re allowed to do without evidence.”
Dr. Novella went on to say that in the context of commercially available products, the phrase “boosting the immune system” is neither a scientific nor medical term. It’s more of a vague promise than a concrete, quantifiable fact. Your immune system already functions optimally if you’re healthy and well-nourished.
In fact, one of the best defenses against infections including the coronavirus, which medical experts have been advising for several months, is regular, thorough hand washing with soapy water. He said that alcohol-based hand washing or hand sanitizers are effective as well. What about antibacterial soaps?
“These are very common on the market these days; everything seems to be antibacterial,” Dr. Novella said. “What makes a soap antibacterial is that it contains one or more chemicals—the most common being triclosan—and this has antibacterial effect. In 2007, a systematic review concluded that antibacterial soaps containing triclosan are not more effective than regular soap. However, there are still some studies which show that maybe it’s more effective if you combine it with other antibacterial agents.
“So the jury is still out.”
Dr. Steven Novella contributed to this article. Dr. Novella is Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Yale School of Medicine. He earned his M.D. from Georgetown University and completed his residency training in neurology at Yale University.