More scary than Halloween: this month in germophobia microbophobia

It seems that any time a holiday comes around in the US, the press starts to ramp up the writing of stories about evil microbes that are lurking all around us. And Halloween appears to be no exception. I am now planning on referring to this attitude as “microbophobia” rather than “germophobia” because to some “germ” implies pathogen and many of these stories fan the flames of fear about any kind of microbe not just pathogens. I note – the term microbophobia comes from some searches I did recently of Google books.

I was thinking of writing up yet another post trying to counter this excessive microbophobia but decided instead to just provide a collection of links to stories over the last month that have a distinctive microbophobia flavor.  Mind you – there are real reasons to be afraid of some of the microbes circulating around these days.  But the links below seem to me to be serious overkill.

These are but a few of the many examples of microbophobia being pushed by the press. Again, there are certainly things to worry about in terms of pathogens in our immediate environment.  Flu season is coming.  Enterovirus might be on the upswing.  Antibiotic resistance is a massive and troubling problem.  And so on.  But please let us not go completely over the top because the more we promote the idea that we should be killing all microbes, the more trouble we are likely to cause, rather than prevent.

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Water damaged child care building closed for mold abatement

UCR Child Development Center

A UC Riverside child development center building will be closed for several months in order to clean up mold contamination. Air and surface testing will be performed to certify the building as safe after remediation efforts are completed, but the presumed cause of this is a leaking water source within the walls. Sustained wetting of surfaces can support fungal growth especially in buildings, and some of the dominant groups of fungi found include many Penicillium and Aspergillus species.

Russell Vernon, director of UCR’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety, said one of the mold types showing up in preliminary testing is Aspergillus. It is common in the environment and does not usually cause illness. However an individual with a weakened immune system may be susceptible to infection. “Basically, it is important to find the source of the water inside the walls and to get this fixed.”
A tentative reopening date is Dec. 1

The press release is available here

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Microbiomes and the Athletic Arena: Indoor Track Facility Microbiome in conjunction with Salivary and Nostril Microbiomes of Indoor/Outdoor Runners (MoBE Postdoctoral Fellowship)

Microbiome studies involving sports, especially non-contact sports, have yet to become a focus of basic or clinical research. Studying indoor track facilities and the athletes that use them has the potential to demonstrate human effects on the microbiome of a built environment and reciprocated effects of the built environment on the human microbiome; this using a group of individuals thought to be near the pinnacle of health, yet potentially transiently immunocompromised by their physical exertions.


The sport of athletics, which encompasses the disciplines of track and field, road running, cross country running and race walking, is one of the most popular and participated in sports worldwide. Although the much of exercise/training and athletic events are performed outdoors, there are in fact entire disciplines within the sport specifically designated for indoor competition. Outdoor environments used for athletics training can vary drastically from between -20 ºF and 100 ºF depending upon the season if one is located in temperate climates such as those found in the USA and Europe. Fluctuations of elevation, precipitation and humidity can be just as drastic. Most indoor track facilities aim to keep a ‘comfortable’ environment, yet comfort can vary drastically and the difference between indoor and outdoor environments at a given location may be significant.


I hypothesize that the microbiome of indoor track facilities changes seasonally (correlating with climate and human-use patterns) and that individual indoor track facilities have specific microbiome signatures. I also hypothesize that there is a detectable difference in the nostril and/or salivary microbiome of runners who train at indoor track facilities versus those who train outdoors during the winter in a temperate climate (Boston, MA, USA) and that this difference correlates with the microbiome of the indoor training facility used.


I will collect microbial samples from air, touch and non-touch surfaces from 5 indoor track facilities in the Greater Boston area along with salivary and nostril samples from athletes who use the sampled facilities as well as a control group of athletes that remain training outdoor during the winter. Six locations within each track (the air, three touch surfaces and two non-touch surfaces) will be sampled at seven time points that best represent the full athletic training cycle of indoor-track-facility use (August, November, December, January, February, March and May). Nostril and salivary microbiome collections will be done in October (all outdoors), February (half indoors), and May (all outdoors) from 40 adult runners in the Greater Boston area. The 20 runners who participate in indoor training/racing will be from local track clubs that utilize the indoor facilities that are part of the study. The 20 runners who refrain from indoor track use will be from the November Project (Boston chapter); November Project members train outdoor year round in the Greater Boston Area regardless of the outdoor weather.

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How dirty is your money?

Harper Adams University in the UK recently posted a news article describing some intriguing work being done by Senior Lecturer Frank Vriesekoop, who has been investigating, among a slew of other interesting topics, whether banknotes can transfer bacteria, including pathogens.  The original paper (unfortunately, not Open Access) in which his work was reported can be found here.

In his study, Vriesekoop and colleagues focused on money found in catering outlets in ten different countries (Australia, Burkina Faso, China, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States) since servers don’t necessarily wash their hands between handling your food and taking your money.  You can breath a sigh of relief-very few pathogens were found on the banknotes, though bacteria survived significantly longer on paper and cotton-based notes (such as those found in the UK and USA) than they did on plastic-based notes (such as those found in Australia).  Intriguingly, as a result of this research, the UK has decided to circulate plastic-based bank notes by 2016.

The question regarding how dirty, microbially, our money is has really piqued the interests of researchers all over, not just Frank Vriesekoop (an small example of studies is listed below).  I think for the time being, however, we can rest assured that our money is not playing a significant, if any, role in transferring potentially dangerous pathogens.

A smattering of money-microbe research:

1. Bacterial diversity assessed by cultivation-based techniques shows predominance of Staphylococccus species on coins collected in Lisbon and Casablanca

Carla C. C. R. de Carvalho, Maria José Caramujo

FEMS Microbiology Ecology. Apr 2014, Vol. 88, No. 10.1111/fem.2014.88.issue-1: 26-37

EmmanouilAngelakis,Esam IAzhar,Fehmida Bibi, MuhammadYasir, Ahmed KAl-Ghamdi, Ahmad MAshshi, Adel GElshemi, DidierRaoult

Future Microbiology. Feb 2014, Vol. 9: 249-261

Jane-FrancisTatahAkoachere, NanaGaelle, HenryDilonga, Theresa KNkuo-Akenji

BMC Research Notes. Jan 2014, Vol. 7: 16

E.M. Gabriel, A. Coffey, J.M.O’Mahony

Journal of Applied Microbiology. Aug 2013, Vol. 115, No. 10.1111/jam.2013.115.issue-2: 565-571

Nils-OlafHübner, ClaudiaHübner,OjanAssadian

AJN, American Journal of Nursing. Nov 2011: 1

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