Our germ-filled world and our attempts to kill them dead 72



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We have a new toilet disinfectant.

It prominently asserts on its plastic bottle that it “kills 99.9% of germs” which, I assume, is supposed to provide users with some reassurance – confidence even – that they are safe from all toilet-lurking nasties that could cause illness or even death if this miracle breakthrough in the never-ending war against bacteria and its filthy relatives is used according to instructions.

This notice is contained within a red cross which, again I presume, is supposed to remind us that it is like, well, the Red Cross which does such marvellous work worldwide. No doubt it is the result of a lot of high-powered customer-focus research by an advertising agency.

Of course, the flip side to this announcement is that the product “allows 0.01% of germs to live” which wouldn’t really endear it to potential consumers.

Now, I am not some sort of hypochondriac but am I right to worry about catching something quite awful when I perch on the porcelain because 0.01% of germs there are alive and kicking?

No doubt we can all worry when Domestos, that all-purpose bleach and cleaner, boldly stated (without any fear of contradiction) that it “kills all germs – DEAD”. Just what something is other than dead after it has been killed apparently never ever bothered the Domestos folks back then but, today, their sturdy defence of their product has been qualified to “Domestos kills germs dead” which is followed by a fine print list of the germs that it does allegedly kill.

Are there new germs that it doesn’t kill? Could there be more than 0.01% of germs that escape the destructive force of today’s Domestos?

There must be lots and lots of new germs around nowadays than when I was a lad because there are germ-killing products now that didn’t exist then. Everything from hand-sanitising tissues to anti-bacterial wipes now on the market allegedly ensure that we have a germ-free house. Those who put their loved ones at risk by not using these products should be ashamed of themselves is the clear message. I must remember to tell my mother to hang her head in shame for only using soap when I was a kiddie – it’s nothing short of a miracle that I survived.

The Senior Brand Manager for Playtex Products Inc, the makers of Wet Ones, Ms Maria Lovera, has been quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying, “The 99.99% message is more powerful among consumers that ‘antibacterial’ or ‘germ kill’ alone”.

The University of Ottawa (Canada) tested three hand-sanitiser products on a group of 13 year-olds and found that they only killed between 46 per cent and 60 per cent of microbes on their hands despite the 99.99 per cent claim. Microbiologist Jason Tetro who undertook the tests pointed out that there is a vast difference between kids’ dirty hands and laboratory testing which is, he said, “the optimal environment for the hand sanitiser to work” and, of course, this “differs greatly from the real-world setting”.

“Real-world application is completely subject to interpretation and nothing is guaranteed,” said a spokesman for one of the products tested. “Nothing guaranteed”???? But what about the 99.99 per cent strike rate against the nasties claimed by these products?

The Wall Street Journal article cited earlier noted, “To cite a 99.9% fatality rate, manufacturers don’t have to kill 99.9% of all known bugs. Regulations don’t require them to disclose which bugs they exterminate, just that the products are effective against a representative range of microbes. For instance, many products can’t kill ‘clostridium difficile’, a gastrointestinal scourge, or the hepatitis A virus, which inflames the liver. Yet by killing other, more common bugs, they can claim 99.9% effectiveness”.

While this refers to US standards, Australian standards are similar.

And one sneaky little way the manufacturers of products claiming a 99.99 per cent success rate can get around explaining a demonstrable failure of their product is to say that it was because of human error. For example, for many hand washers to work as claimed, you would have to keep scrubbing for the time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice or about 20 to 25 seconds.

What product advises you to do this? None as far as I am aware because half of their appeal is that they will wipe out the nasties instantly.

Dr Jean Schoeni who undertakes product testing in the USA says it is “highly likely” that users of cleaning products don’t get the optimal benefit because many need to sit on surfaces to be cleaned for at least ten minutes to attain desired kill rates. Who waits that long?

I’m 99.99% certain that most of us don’t.


Do you use hand sanitising products to get rid of germs? Are you worried about germs? Tell us below.

Russell Grenning

Russell Grenning is a Brisbane-based former journalist and retired political adviser who began his career with the ABC in 1968 in Brisbane and subsequently worked on the Brisbane afternoon daily, "The Telegraph" and later as a columnist for "The Courier Mail" and "The Australian". He worked for a string of senior Ministers in the Federal, Victorian and Queensland Governments as well as in senior executive public relations positions, including Assistant Federal Director, Public Relations, for Australia Post, Public Relations Manager for the Queensland Department of Main Roads and Principal Adviser, Corporate Relations, for the Queensland Law Society.

  1. I also wonder how we survived our germ-filled childhood. Strong constitutions? I had read somewhere that you need to wash your hands for at least 15 seconds to get rid of the majority of germs. I try to do that now, but probably fail more times than I succeed. Then I remember that I grew up without the benefit of 15 second hand washes and antibacterial everything so I guess I’ll survive a bit longer with my unsanitary ways. I do, however, always wash my hands after using a toilet, unlike too many women nowadays, who come out of the toilet, check themselves in the mirror and leave. Wash your hands! I don’t mind my germs, but I don’t want to share other peoples.

  2. Yes there are a lot of fibs floating around with them gems . us older ones should be gone by now , if the gems were that bad don’t believe every thing you are told

  3. It has been shown that washing hands with ordinary soap under running water is the best way to get rid of germs on our hands. Regarding germs in toilets etc, we build up defenses against most germs with our auto immune system. It has been proven by scientists that if we keep our homes too clean, our children can develop asthma and can become constantly unwell. We have more to worry about in the world than the odd germ or two which won’t die under the onslaught of bleach. Just one more hint…. 10 minutes in direct sunlight will kill all germs on towels etc. Best disinfectant around.

  4. I heard that you should wash your hands before and after going to the toilet Trish Simpson

    1 REPLY
    • If hands have garden dirt, cooking ingredients – or are grubby for some other reason – yes, wash them before using the toilet; otherwise, just wash them thoroughly afterwards. I use my elbow flush the toilet.

      I do use a waterless hand wash after handling money/shopping, until I can wash them thoroughly at home. Whenever I return home, I wash my hands immediately. I’ve hardly had a cold since doing this for a few years!
      Coincidence or lucky?!

      I often garden without gloves and scoop up leaves from wet spoon drains, mow, scrub out bird baths, etc. – also often without gloves. Afterwards, immediately scrub hands AND NAILS in hot, soapy water TWICE, sometimes using disinfectant on a cut or bad scratch, then shower, as usual.

      Basic rule – hot, soapy water and commonsense.

  5. The doctors have warned over and over again not to use all these antibacterial products especially hand cleaners as they build resistance to treatment when really needed and are injurious to health and ineffective in the main…..nobody listens

  6. I’ve got this far thru life … and actually survived working in a hospital (and they have serious germs) with the regular application of hot soapy water to my person, in particular to my hands after gardening, going to the toilet, and before preparing or eating food. I also wash my dishes in hot soapy water, and dry my washing out in the sun, on the line rather than in the dryer. Soap, clean water, sunshine, fresh air and frost all make the lives of germs petty uncomfortable.

    4 REPLY
    • Agree Wendy Fowler. Mum used a copper to wash the washing in. hard work but what a great white and fresh line of washing flapping in the breeze.

    • I think the most frequently used cleaning product in the house I grew up in was actually “elbow grease”. 🙂

    • It’s all that is needed. It’s the friction from elbow grease that dislodges bugs. Sunlight is also a very effective bug killer…..MRSA hates it.

  7. We aren’t meant to live in a totally germ-free environment, we need to live with a lot of nasties and build up an immunity against them. Basic hand washing hygiene and good cleaning practises should suffice. Having said that though, my pet hate is germ ridden tea towels and hand towels; imagine washing grubby hands under cold running water at the kitchen sink then drying them on the tea towel to be used to dry the dishes! MEGA transfer of germs all over cooking utensils, plates, cutlery etc. I’ve even observed people wiping up spills off the floor with the tea towel! Keeping a towel for drying hands is fine as long as it is washed daily and, along with tea towels, hung out in the fresh air and /or sunshine to dry.

    3 REPLY
    • I go balistic when one of the family uses the tea towel to dry their hands – I have a ‘hanging towel’ for that! (Its actually a large flannel that I croched a top part for so I can attach it to a handle – simple solution ….. well, as long as they use it!!)

    • Yes ,kids of today get sick more, not enough germs, Clean,Clean,even clean backyards. God help us kids, Parents could only afford a Dr if you were dying.

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