- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Germs, germs and more germs. The world seems contamination-crazy in the age of bird flu and infectious pedicures.

Once upon a time, it was acceptable — desirable even — to run an admiring hand across a well-turned collar. No more. Shoppers are so paranoid about picking up “cooties” from clothes that someone else has touched that they are reluctant to even buy the items, the University of Alberta reported yesterday.

“Prior research has shown people like to touch products, but now we’ve found that they really don’t like it if someone else has touched them first,” said Jennifer Argo, a business professor at the Canadian school who evaluated the behaviors of 200 shoppers.

It’s the disgust factor at work, apparently.

In an elaborate experiment at the university’s bookstore, Ms. Argo found that if shoppers thought someone else had prodded a test T-shirt, both admiration and the buying urge disappeared and irrational “disgust” took over.

“People devalued the shirt, even when there was no actual contamination, just the perception that it had been touched,” she said. “I guess we never outgrow the simple notion of cooties.”

There is a psychological term for exaggerated fear of germs that affects behavior — mysophobia, actually an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It causes NBC’s “Deal or No Deal” host Howie Mandel — who readily admits he has a case — to only bump knuckles with the public.

“I don’t think anyone should shake hands,” Mr. Mandel has told NBC. He won’t shake with anyone, not even Donald Trump, and upon arriving in a hotel room will line the carpet with exactly 26 clean towels to avoid treading on any hostile germs.

Genuine microbes lurk in public places, though a certain germ bias is at work.

“I have found that portable toilets actually have fewer germs by far than outdoor playground equipment, escalator handrails, shopping-cart handles and picnic tables,” said Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona.

“Yet in a national survey of 1,000 adults, more people ranked the portable toilets as the germiest of all those places, and they thought that garbage cans have more germs than kitchen sinks,” he said.

Indeed, preventive hygiene is on the public’s mind. Pfizer, maker of pharmaceuticals and the hand sanitizer Purell, issued a list of the top-99 germy public spots yesterday — from office staplers to airport security buckets. Last month, the annual International Housewares Association trade show showcased a veritable armory of antiseptic devices for the paranoid homeowner.

Serious, large-scale measures are under way, however. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is stockpiling N95 respirators — facial masks — to prepare for a flu pandemic, though physicians at an Institute of Medicine forum on Monday said they were not sure whether the masks will work against avian flu.

State health boards have cracked down on nail salons in California, South Carolina and Texas after dozens of customers were sickened by bacteria in unsanitary pedicure tubs earlier this year.

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