Cleaning has taken on a whole new meaning in Frank Mosco's household during the COVID-19 pandemic. There's a protocol for everything he and his two teenage daughters do.
Experts agree that over-disinfecting is better than inadequate disinfecting, especially during a pandemic.
"We wipe down every package that comes into the house and the items inside," says Mosco, a technologist and social justice activist in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. "If it's a fruit or vegetable, I use vinegar and water, or water and soap. Then we throw out the boxes, clean up the table, and wash our hands." Only then do they put items away.
As the novel coronavirus continues to pose an invisible threat, parents of infants to adolescents are pondering how vigorously and frequently to clean and disinfect surfaces at home and apply hand sanitizer in public. They also fret over whether there can be too much of a good thing: Will making everything as seemingly germ-free as possible reduce immunity down the road?
Experts agree that over-disinfecting is better than inadequate disinfecting, especially during a pandemic. Every family should assess their particular risks. Factors to consider include pre-existing medical conditions, the number of people living in the same home, and whether anyone works in a hospital or other virus-prone environment, says Kari Debbink, assistant professor of biology at Bowie State University in Bowie, Maryland.
Constantly cleaning everything in sight isn't necessary, she explains, because coronavirus tends to spread mainly via immediate contact with respiratory droplets—catching it from surfaces is a less-likely scenario. The longer the virus stays on a surface, the less contagious it becomes.
Some parents worry that their children's growing bodies may become accustomed to an environment that is "too clean." Debbink, a virologist, offers a salient reminder: "The immune system comes into contact with many, many different antigens every day, and it is 'trained' from birth onwards to respond to pathogens. Doing a little more cleansing and disinfecting during the pandemic will not weaken the immune system."
Other experts agree. "There should be no negative outcome to properly washing your hands more frequently," says Stacey Schultz-Cherry, an infectious diseases specialist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. "Even with enhanced disinfection, kids are still getting exposed to immune-boosting microbes from playing outside, having pets, etc."
"There's no reason why hand sanitizer would weaken anyone's immune system of any age."
Applying hand sanitizer consisting of at least 60 percent alcohol helps clean hands while outdoors, says Angela Rasmussen, associate research scientist and a virologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health in New York. "There's no reason why hand sanitizer would weaken anyone's immune system of any age," she adds, and recommends moisturizer so hands don't dry out from frequent use. Meanwhile, "cleaning and disinfecting at home also don't have an impact on antiviral immunity, in kids or adults."
With the coronavirus foremost in parents' minds, Patricia Garcia, a pediatric hospitalist, has fielded many questions about how thoroughly they should wipe, rub, scrub, or mop. As medical director of Connecticut Children's Healthy Homes Program in Hartford, which takes aim at toxins and other housing hazards, she reassures them with this mantra: "You're never going to get it perfectly sterilized, and that's okay."
To quell some of these concerns, in March the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a list of products for household use. None of these products have been specifically tested against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. But the agency expects these products to be effective because they have demonstrated efficacy against a different human coronavirus similar to SARS-CoV-2 or an even harder-to-kill virus.
Many products on the list contain isopropyl alcohol or hydrogen peroxide. "When using an EPA-registered disinfectant," the agency's website instructs, "follow the label directions for safe, effective use. Make sure to follow the contact time, which is the amount of time the surface should be visibly wet."
Bear in mind that not all cleaners actually disinfect, cautions Alan Woolf, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital who directs its environmental health center and is a professor at Harvard Medical School. Some cleaners remove visible dirt, grease, and grime, but they don't kill viruses. Disinfectants by their nature inactivate both bacteria and viruses. "That's an important distinction," Woolf says.
Frequently touched surfaces—for instance, doorknobs, light switches, toilet-flushing levers, and countertops—should not only be cleaned, but also disinfected at least daily during a pandemic if someone in the household is sick. The objects one touches upon coming home are the ones most likely to become contaminated with viruses, experts say.
Before bringing items inside, "it might be good to clear off a counter space where they will be placed," says Debbink, the biology professor and virologist. "This way, they come into contact with as few items and surfaces as possible."
If space permits, another option would be to set aside nonperishable items. "I've heard of some families putting things in a 'mud room' and closing the door for 48 hours, some leaving things in their garage or car trunk," says Stephanie Holm, co-director of the Western States Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit at the University of California, San Francisco. "Letting new purchases sit for 48 hours undisturbed would greatly reduce the number of viable viruses present."
Cleaning surfaces is recommended before disinfecting them. Holm suggests using unscented soap and microfiber cloths instead of paper towels, which can transmit bacteria and viruses from one area to another.
Soap has the power to eradicate viruses with at least 20 seconds of contact time. It attacks the coronavirus's protective coat, explains infectious diseases specialist Schultz-Cherry. "If you destroy the coat, the virus is no longer infectious. Influenza virus is also very sensitive to soap."
"The most important thing that parents should do for children's immune systems is make sure they are up to date on all their vaccines."
For cribs, toys, and other mouth-contact surfaces, sanitizing with soap and water, not disinfectants, is advisable, says pediatrician Woolf. Fresh fruits and vegetables also can be cleaned with soap, removing dirt and pesticide residue, he adds.
"Some parents are nervous about using disinfectant on toys, which is understandable, considering many toys end up in children's mouths, so soap and water can be an alternative," says pediatrician Garcia, who recommends using hot water.
While some toys can go in the washing machine and dryer or dishwasher, others need to be cleaned by hand, with dish soap or a delicate detergent, as indicated on their labels. But toys with electrical components cannot be submerged in water, in which case consulting the EPA's list of disinfectants may be a parent's best option, she says.
Labels on the back of cleaning and disinfecting products also contain specific instructions. Not allowing a liquid to sit on a surface for the recommended time results in exposure to chemicals without even accomplishing the intended purpose of disinfection. For most household bleach-containing agents, the advisable "dwell time" is 10 minutes. "Many people don't realize this," says Holm, the environmental health specialist who also trained as a physician.
Beware of combining any type of cleaners or disinfectants that aren't already premixed. Doing so can release harmful gases into the air, she cautions.
During the pandemic, Mosco and his daughters have been very conscientious about decontaminating whatever comes through their doors. Mosco says he doesn't believe the family is overusing cleaning and disinfecting products. Although he's fastidious, he says, "a completely sterile environment is not the goal."
His mother, who was a nurse, instilled in him that exposure to some bacteria is a good thing. In turn, he "always encouraged his kids to play with animals, and to have fun in sand and dirt, with plenty of sunlight to keep their immune systems strong."
Even though a vaccine for coronavirus currently doesn't exist, parents can take some comfort in the best weapon available today to protect kids from deadly pathogens: "The most important thing that parents should do for children's immune systems," says virologist Rasmussen, "is make sure they are up to date on all their vaccines."
Every year, one in seven people in America comes down with a foodborne illness, typically caused by a bacterial pathogen, including E.Coli, listeria, salmonella, or campylobacter. That adds up to 48 million people, of which 120,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the variety of foods that can be contaminated with bacterial pathogens is growing too. In the 20th century, E.Coli and listeria lurked primarily within meat. Now they find their way into lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, causing periodic consumer scares and product recalls. Onions are the most recent suspected culprit of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
Some of these incidents are almost inevitable because of how Mother Nature works, explains Divya Jaroni, associate professor of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University. These common foodborne pathogens come from the cattle's intestines when the animals shed them in their manure—and then they get washed into rivers and lakes, especially in heavy rains. When this water is later used to irrigate produce farms, the bugs end up on salad greens. Plus, many small farms do both—herd cattle and grow produce.
"Unfortunately for us, these pathogens are part of the microflora of the cows' intestinal tract," Jaroni says. "Some farmers may have an acre or two of cattle pastures, and an acre of a produce farm nearby, so it's easy for this water to contaminate the crops."
Food producers and packagers fight bacteria by potent chemicals, with chlorine being the go-to disinfectant. Cattle carcasses, for example, are typically washed by chlorine solutions as the animals' intestines are removed. Leafy greens are bathed in water with added chlorine solutions. However, because the same "bath" can be used for multiple veggie batches and chlorine evaporates over time, the later rounds may not kill all of the bacteria, sparing some. The natural and organic producers avoid chlorine, substituting it with lactic acid, a more holistic sanitizer, but even with all these efforts, some pathogens survive, sickening consumers and causing food recalls. As we farm more animals and grow more produce, while also striving to use fewer chemicals and more organic growing methods, it will be harder to control bacteria's spread.
"It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives. But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end."
Luckily, bacteria have their own killers. Called bacteriophages, or phages for short, they are viruses that prey on bacteria only. Under the electron microscope, they look like fantasy spaceships, with oblong bodies, spider-like legs and long tails. Much smaller than a bacterium, phages pierce the microbes' cells with their tails, sneak in and begin multiplying inside, eventually bursting the microbes open—and then proceed to infect more of them. The best part is that these phages are harmless to humans. Moreover, recent research finds that millions of phages dwell on us and in us—in our nose, throat, skin and gut, protecting us from bacterial infections as part of our healthy microbiome. A recent study suggested that we absorb about 30 billion phages into our bodies on a daily basis. Now, ingeniously, they are starting to be deployed as anti-microbial agents in the food industry.
A Maryland-based phage research company called Intralytix is doing just that. Founded by Alexander Sulakvelidze, a microbiologist and epidemiologist who came to the United States from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Intralytix makes and sells five different FDA-approved phage cocktails that work against some of the most notorious food pathogens: ListShield for Listeria, SalmoFresh for Salmonella, ShigaShield for Shigella, another foodborne bug, and EcoShield for E.coli, including the infamous strain that caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 that killed four children and sickened 732 people across four states. Earlier this month, the FDA granted its approval to yet another Intralytix phage for managing Campylobacter contamination, named CampyShield. "We call it safety by nature," Sulakvelidze says.
Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder."
Photo credit: Living Radiant Photography
Phage preparations are relatively straightforward to make. In nature, phages thrive in any body of water where bacteria live too, including rivers, lakes and bays. "I can dip a bucket into the Chesapeake Bay, and it will be full of all kinds of phages," Sulakvelidze says. "Sewage is another great place to look for specific phages of interest, because it's teeming with all sorts of bacteria—and therefore the viruses that prey on them." In lab settings, Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder." Once phages multiply enough, they are harvested, dispensed into containers and shipped to food producers who have adopted this disinfecting practice into their preparation process. Typically, it's done by computer-controlled sprayer systems that disperse mist-like phage preparations onto the food.
Unlike chemicals like chlorine or antibiotics, which kill a wide spectrum of bacteria, phages are more specialized, each feeding on specific microbial species. A phage that targets salmonella will not prey on listeria and vice versa. So food producers may sometimes use a combo of different phage preparations. Intralytix is continuously researching and testing new phages. With a contract from the National Institutes of Health, Intralytix is expanding its automated high-throughput robot that tests which phages work best against which bacteria, speeding up the development of the new phage cocktails.
Phages have other "talents." In her recent study, Jaroni found that phages have the ability to destroy bacterial biofilms—colonies of microorganisms that tend to grow on surfaces of the food processing equipment, surrounding themselves with protective coating that even very harsh chemicals can't crack. "Phages are very clever," Jaroni says. "They produce enzymes that target the biofilms, and once they break through, they can reach the bacteria."
Convincing the FDA that phages were safe to use on food products was no easy feat, Sulakvelidze says. In his home country of Georgia, phages have been used as antimicrobial remedies for over a century, but the FDA was leery of using viruses as food safety agents. "It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives," Sulakvelidze says. "But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end." The agency had granted Intralytix its first approval in 2006, and over the past 10 years, the company's sales increased by over 15-fold. "We currently sell to about 40 companies and are in discussions with several other large food producers," Sulakvelidze says. One indicator that the industry now understands and appreciates the science of phages was that his company was ranked as Top Food Safety Provider in 2021 by Food and Beverage Technology Review, he adds. Notably, phage sprays are kosher, halal and organic-certified.
Intralytix's phage cocktails to safeguard food from bacteria are approved for consumers in addition to food producers, but currently the company sells to food producers only. Selling retail requires different packaging like easy-to-use spray bottles and different marketing that would inform people about phages' antimicrobial qualities. But ultimately, giving people the ability to remove pathogens from their food with probiotic phage sprays is the goal, Sulakvelidze says.
It's not the company's only goal. Now Intralytix is going a step further, investigating phages' probiotic and therapeutic abilities. Because phages are highly specialized in the bacteria they target, they can be used to treat infections caused by specific pathogens while leaving the beneficial species of our microbiome intact. In an ongoing clinical trial with Mount Sinai, Intralytix is now investigating a potential phage treatment against a certain type of E. coli for patients with Crohn's disease, and is about to start another clinical trial for treating bacterial dysentery.
"Now that we have proved that phages are safe and effective against foodborne bacteria," Sulakvelidze says, "we are going to demonstrate their potential in therapeutic applications."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."