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(Seth Scriver for The Globe and Mail)
(Seth Scriver for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments Essay

Life in a time of germaphobia Add to ...

Our 40-year-old toilet recently gave out. We got a new one. During the installation the plumber mentioned that he went, once a week, to the local golf club to replace their broken toilet-flusher handles. Once every week!

"That seems excessive," I said. I couldn't imagine why golfers would be so hard on toilet handles. Hadn't my grandmother managed to hold onto the same one for at least 60 years? Maybe this plumber was using cheap plastic replacements to ensure he had a job for life.

But it wasn't cheap plastic or boorish golfers making the career of this plumber. It turns out that I'm the last person to realize it's more sanitary to flush the handle with your foot instead of touching it with your hands. I'm sure it is. I just wish I'd figured that out a lot sooner.

Germs. These days everyone is thinking about them. Two years ago I couldn't have told you what Purell was for, but now all my friends are armed with squirt bottles of this antibacterial mace. And since the onset of H1N1, the hospital where I am a regular visitor has sprouted hand-sanitizer dispensers at every doorway.

Sanitizing the hands seems like a good idea, so I joined in and gave mine the odd shot of gel, especially if I thought any nurses were looking my way. Little by little I succumbed to the propaganda that the hospital, or the world even, is awash in germs looking to kill me outright or at least hitch a ride on me. I began to press the elevator button with my knuckle, the ring-finger knuckle of my left hand, which isn't much involved in my daily affairs.

I shared one such elevator ride with a member of the hospital cleaning staff who was pushing a three-level trolley of bagged, reeking laundry. He was suitably gloved, therefore well protected from all the stuff he had just packed up. "Let me press the elevator button for you because I am wearing rubber gloves," he said.

"Thanks," I said, and as I exited the building, I squirted again as advised.

Then it occurred to me that the bacterial count on the rubber gloves that man was wearing must have been off the charts. My ordinary bare hands were as good as boiled and irradiated in comparison to his button-pressing, door-holding, handle-turning, getting-a-chocolate-bar-out-of-the-snack-machine and worn-for-eight-hours-straight rubber gloves. Since that day I have had my doubts about the rubber-glove solution to germ transmission.

I predict that rubber gloves will cause the next noteworthy plague. Have you not seen the gloved sandwich maker in the coffee shop fishing in her pocket for a tissue while making your sandwich? After pouring the coffee and touching every machine in the place, she helpfully takes your money at the cash register too. The places those rubber gloves have been are the same places where bare hands used to go, except hands were washed once in a while.

My worst rubber-glove fears arise at the dentist's office, an apparently spotless and high-tech place. My hygienist, the officious high-energy type, puts on fresh (I hope) gloves and begins to poke around in my mouth. Oops. She has to adjust the lamp and pull the tray closer. Hands back into my mouth. Just has to write something down. Hands into my mouth again. Leaves the room to take X-rays. Hands back into my mouth. Goes to put in her pizza order, then talk with the receptionist. More notes, more tray and lamp adjustments, then hands into my mouth again. What do you call those people who carry a disease but never get it?

I begin to count the number of times she grabs the underside of her chair to pull it closer. I think of all the patients who have gone before me and all those weeks of chair adjustment, immediately followed by all those open mouths ready to receive the bacteria of previous patients. Why don't I just start smoking other people's cigarette butts, or licking door knobs? Why bother to wash my hands when my own mouth is a sewer?

I recall the 40 years I spent with my previous low-tech dentist. His assistant disinfected the room between patients and prepared his equipment just so. He read the chart, then washed his hands with soap and began. If he left the room he would rewash on the way in. I suppose soap doesn't do the job of rubber gloves, but rubber gloves these days are too well-travelled for my taste.

To compound matters, my new dentist insists I must come back every three months to maintain good dental hygiene. I calculate that if I do I will be twice as likely to contract whatever disease is lurking under the edge of that chair.

So, in self-defence, I have taken to wearing gloves wherever I go - not rubber gloves, but my old leather gloves. I keep them on when visiting hospitals, pumping gas or playing fetch with the dog, but I never make sandwiches wearing them, nor do I stick them into anyone's mouth. That would be unsanitary. And when I finally get back home after a long day of germ collection, I take my gloves off and wash my hands with soap. That (plus a flu shot just in case) is good enough for me.

Marcia Taylor lives in Ottawa.

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