More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Germs Never Sleep
By ALLEN SALKIN, New York Times
November 5, 2006

SIMON SASSOON saw the future in a dream. Mr. Sassoon, a former watch designer, dreamed he was standing in a women?s public restroom, which his hygiene-conscious girlfriend had just left. Attached to the door above the knob was a white plastic box.

As Mr. Sassoon?s dream self watched, the box made a gushing sound. Out from the bottom sprayed a fine dry mist, which bathed the metal knob and killed every germ on it.

?I felt I?d found my calling,? Mr. Sassoon said last week, very much awake as he demonstrated a prototype, which he said looked exactly like the box in his dream. ?There?s a tremendous ?ick? factor when it comes to doorknobs.?

The girlfriend is now an ex, but two years and $250,000 of investment capital later, the HYSO, an acronym for Cantonese words meaning ?happy hands,? is starting to roll off production lines. Mr. Sassoon, 44, a nephew of the hairdresser Vidal Sassoon, is betting there is a vast and rapidly expanding market for a $60 device that sprays a hospital-grade disinfectant on doorknobs every 15 minutes.

Be it dream or nightmare, he may be right. Germs of all kinds are on the minds of Americans, to judge by a flood of germ-fighting products hitting the market across dozens of consumer categories. They include a portable subway strap that promises to do away with ?reaching for a slimy overhead bar,? ultraviolet ?pens? that can be dipped into a glass of water to kill everything DNA-based and an around-the-neck air purifier. With them companies are creating the illusion that no one need ever touch another surface, drink a drop of water or breathe an atom of oxygen sullied by a fellow human being.

Those in the hygiene brigade can reel off dozens of reasons all strangers are potential enemies: virulent flu seasons, packed airplanes with stale air, buses where no one covers a mouth when sneezing. But social critics detect an element of hysteria in the germaphobia of Americans and suggest that at its root is a fear of a dangerous, out-of-control world.

?Marketers of a variety of products are very adept at tapping into Americans? sense that they are living in a very dangerous time and place, and selling them at relatively low cost a feeling of protection,? said Barry Glassner, the author of ?The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.?

Is it only a coincidence that the same places where Americans most fear terrorism ? airplanes, schools, mass transit, water supplies and computers ? they also fear germs?

News reports have delivered sobering information about microbial threats like severe acute respiratory syndrome and E. coli. And with 300 million Americans, there are more potential runny noses and unwashed hands than ever to catch colds from. In a 2005 study commissioned by the American Society of Microbiologists, one of many reports cited by the germ-concerned, 91 percent of adults said they washed their hands after using a public restroom, but real world observers found that only 83 percent actually did.


Favorite symbols of the movement (and of its detractors) are the obsessive-compulsive television detective Monk; the famously germ-averse game show host Howie Mandel, who has a sign on his Web site showing a slash through a handshake; and the mysophobe (the proper term for what most people call a germaphobe) Howard Hughes.

But not all of the hyper-hygiene-conscious can be dismissed as suffering from Monklike anxiety disorder. While some of the tens of thousands of micro-organisms, bacteria, fungi and viruses collectively know as ?germs? are beneficial to humans, like the bacteria that aid in digestion, about 600 are dangerous, like salmonella, E. coli and cold viruses, said Philip M. Tierno Jr., the author of ?The Secret Life of Germs.?

Georgia-Pacific, the paper goods company, began receiving field reports about mysterious collections of used paper towels near bathroom exits. Further investigation found bathroom users were carrying towels to the door to cover the knob and then discarding them on the floor (because the trash cans were far away).

In the summer the company introduced Safe-T-Gard, a combination dispenser of doorknob-size tissues and a trash receptacle to be mounted on the wall next to doors.

Consumer fear of unclean environments has developed significantly over the last five years, said Bill Sleeper, the general manager of Georgia-Pacific?s commercial tissue and towel category. ?All of the issues of nosocomial infections in hospitals, the risk of bird flu, the cruise ship outbreaks, there?s just more and more awareness of health issues,? he said.

But some of the resulting behavior makes no sense, Mr. Sleeper said. The company?s studies have found bathroom users covering their fingers in toilet paper before flushing and using more tissue to open stall doors, even though there is almost no health reason to do so, because their next stop is the sink to wash their hands with soap and water.

Another company, Fulkerson, in Cumming, Ga., is attacking doorknobs differently. Its SanitGrasp, introduced in May at the National Restaurant Association convention in Chicago, replaces traditional pull handles with a large U-shape device, which allows a door to be opened with a forearm.

At the grass roots, antigerm innovation is furious:

? Sandra Barbor, 60, of Sandwich, Ill., was always bothered by having to grasp the handles of shopping carts, and when her husband was found to have myelodysplastic syndrome, which compromised his immune system, she was driven to invent the Sani-Shopping Cover, a $3.49 strip of protective vinyl that adheres to cart handles. Ms. Barbor, a retired marketer, has sold about 1,000 covers online.

? Hotel guests, concerned that bedspreads are not washed as frequently as sheets, have taken to whisking them off the bed on arrival and throwing them, bottom side up, into a corner. Marriott hotels responded last year with a bedding concept called Revive. Comforters are encased in white cotton covers, which are washed with the bedsheets.

? On the Internet frequent travelers caution about the dirtiness of hotel television remotes (suggestions include carrying a plastic bag to sheathe these button-covered germ magnets) and room coffee mugs. (Maids, the discussion-board wisdom goes, do not replace them with properly washed ones but use the towels they used to clean the toilet to swab dirty cups.)

FREQUENTERS of such message boards insist their fears are reasonable.

One of them, Julie Zagars, 34, a consultant to the food and beverage industry, said by phone, ?I am a frequent traveler, and I simply don?t have time to get sick.?

When Ms. Zagars boards planes, she first slips around her neck the Air Supply Ionic Personal Air Purifier, which the company promises will repel allergens and viruses. Next she wipes the armrests, headrest and tray table with Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, and finally she pulls out her own cotton travel blanket.

Some antigerm sentiment could be stemming from the increasing pressure not to miss days at work, said Allison Janse, an author of ?The Germ Freak?s Guide to Outwitting Colds and Flu: Guerrilla Tactics to Keep Yourself Healthy at Home, at Work and in the World.?

The task of transmuting fear into cheer is left to marketers. Probably the first wave of modern germ consciousness began in 1997, with the consumer introduction of Purell, the hand-sanitizing gel (around since 1988 for the medical profession). Pfizer, its maker, has updated the product as the new wave of germ-fighting gadgets arrives. The company has introduced a multicolor line of the sanitizer, Purell-2-Go, which comes in small bottles with rubber rings to attach to backpacks, lunchboxes and key chains. ?We tried to make it fun,? said Erica Johnson, a Pfizer spokeswoman.

A children?s book by Elizabeth Verdick published this year by Free Spirit titled ?Germs Are Not for Sharing? has illustrations of children playing together without touching. ?When germs get on your hands,? the text reads, ?they can spread to other people. When you hold hands or play games or give each other high fives.?

?I kind of doubt kids will stop giving each other high fives,? said Dr. Michael Bell, the associate director for infection control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While Dr. Bell recommends teaching children about hygiene, washing one?s hands after using the bathroom and making sure to clean kitchen surfaces carefully is as much as most people need do, he said.

There is no hard scientific evidence that any of the air filters, nose sprays or personal sterile headrest covers for travelers help prevent infections.

But facts are not standing in the way of the antigerm marketplace, where style is becoming increasingly important. In 2001, Hydro-Photon of Blue Hill, Me., introduced SteriPEN, a portable but somewhat clunky ultraviolet device to disinfect drinking water for adventure travelers. The device is being used not only by back-country campers but also by urban Americans wanting to take extra precautions.

They want to carry the pen in their pockets, said Ed Volkwein, the company president. He expects to have a sleeker line of $130 SteriPENs, colored silver and black, in stores by Christmas.

Big-city living is a minefield for the germ-conscious. Emily Beck, the inventor of City Mitts, nonslip antibacterial gloves that commuters can wear to grasp subway handholds, has developed a prototype of a product to keep potentially infectious strangers even farther at bay.

The Excuse Me flag is a little yellow banner mounted on a lightweight pole, which is attached to one?s waist so it swings back and forth in front of the wearer during walking. Any other pedestrian who walks too close will be slapped in the face by the pole or the yellow flag, which reads ?Excuse Me.?

?It generates a cubic yard of free walking space between you and a sneezer,? Ms Beck, a former New Yorker, said from her home in Delaware. ?It makes it so you don?t have to touch anybody or talk to anybody in New York.?


Quite an interesing article David, thanks for the post. I like the invention of the spray on the doorknobs, sounds like a great idea to me. I know that I tend to use anything be it paper towel, my foot, the sleave of my shirt etc. but not my hand to open public bathroom doors. The one part that I did find really interesting was this:

? Hotel guests, concerned that bedspreads are not washed as frequently as sheets, have taken to whisking them off the bed on arrival and throwing them, bottom side up, into a corner.

It was a relief to find out that I am not the only one that does this. I was thinking that it was odd behaviour on my part..:panic:
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