Right now, as of this writing, Pottery Barn is selling a $129 framed print that says "Wash Your Hands" in an all-caps, sans-serif font. "While staying true to their original intent, Mom’s favorite sayings take on a contemporary look in this witty wall art," the product description reads. If you need to drop $129 to remind yourself to wash your hands after you take a dump, your mom's favorite sayings clearly weren't "wash your hands" or "don't be an idiot."
If your own mother couldn't convince you to lather up before you leave the bathroom, then maybe this study about E. coli can. According to just-published research from the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, antibiotic-resistant E. coli is more likely to be spread by "poor toilet hygiene" than it is by undercooked chicken or other often-blamed foods.
These researchers focused on Extended-spectrum β-lactamase-producing (ESBL) E. coli, a drug-resistant strain of the bacteria that is responsible for more than 5,000 cases of bacterial blood infections every year in the United Kingdom. But until these scientists started doing some seriously nasty work, they were unsure whether that particular kind of E. coli was picked up somewhere in the food chain, or whether they were passed from person to person.
"We all have harmless E. coli that live in our gut,” lead researcher Professor David Livermore told The Guardian. "Additionally there are some strains that can cause diarrheal diseases, ranging from the mild to the severe. These aren’t associated with poor kitchen hygiene and food preparation … what we’ve shown is that the antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli that cause bloodstream infections—the ones that are difficult to treat—are the ones that are often found in people’s guts. So people are carrying this E. coli about.”
For this study, Livermore and his team took samples of E. coli from human feces, from sewage, and from dairy farm slurry. They also collected samples from raw beef, pork, and chicken, along with fruits, berries, and vegetables, all of which were purchased from supermarkets, convenience stores, butchers, and other local retailers. "We wanted to find out how these superbugs are spread, and whether there is a cross-over from the food chain to humans," Livermore said.
After examining all of those samples, they realized that the same kind of ESBL-E. coli was detected in the feces and sewer samples, and that particular strain of bacteria—they called it ST131—was "scarcely" found on the meat or in the farm slurry samples. There was no ESBL-E. coli found on any of the 400 fruits and vegetables that they tested. These results, the researchers said, show that there's very little crossover between ESBL E. coli strains that are found in the human gut, and the strains that can be found in uncooked meats.
"The great majority of strains of ESBL-E. coli causing human infections aren't coming from eating chicken, or anything else in the food chain," Livermore said. "Rather—and unpalatably—the likeliest route of transmission for ESBL-E. coli is directly from human to human, with fecal particles from one person reaching the mouth of another." (Eat ass? Might want to keep this research in mind. "The ESBL E. coli are definitely present in the bowel and rectum; they do not spontaneously appear in the [feces]. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to suppose that transmission could occur via oral/anal contact," Livermore added.)
He said that, yes, it's still important to cook meats thoroughly and to take care when you're handling raw meats, but "it's much more important"—his words—to wash your hands after using the toilet.
This research was published in The Lancet earlier this week. If you're still skeptical for some reason, maybe you should print the full text, frame it, and hang it in your bathroom. Oh yeah—that'll be $129.