How long (if ever) does it take germs to “leave” an object?

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A spoon out of my drawer is relatively safe to put in my mouth. How long would it take for that same spoon to be safe if I plucked it from, say, a cow pie? Would it ever be safe, or would it be germy forever until cleaned?

In: Biology

4 Answers

Anonymous 0 Comments

There are two things on your cowpie spoon that could cause you harm. The microorganisms and the toxins those microorganisms excrete.

The toxins are just chemicals and won’t go away or die unless they’re washed. Some chemicals aren’t very stable and might break down from exposure to oxygen or ultraviolet light. Some not.

The microorganisms themselves may die (in which they’d be safe for you to eat), or they may dry out and go into a sort of suspended animation until they get into the right sort of environment (like your mouth), in which case, not so much.

It would depend on what you did with that spoon while you were waiting to use it. Carefully wrapped in plastic and kept in a freezer? Open to the air and sunlight in the desert? It all depends.

I’m hoping this is a theoretical question and you’re not staring at a cowpie spoon, waiting for it to be safe to use 😉

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s entirely dependent on the type of germ and the environmental factors at play.

Salmonella only lives for a couple hours. Streptococcus pyogenes can exist from a few hours to half a year.

If you took a spoon out of a cow pie and never cleaned it likely wouldn’t be safe for long time if ever, because it’ll harbor other dangerous things than just “germs”.

Anonymous 0 Comments

The dangerous things are the germs themselves, the toxins they make and the spores which can germinate into new germs. Toxins can be hard to destroy, and spores are very very hard to destroy.

Also, not all germs are dangerous to you. Some are not dangerous when they go into your mouth and stomach, but only if they end up in a wound. For example, the spore forming family Clostridium. Clostridium tetani is destroyed by stomach acid, but spores can come back to life in a wound and produce a toxin which kills you (tetanus). Clostridium botulinum is destroyed in adult stomach acid, but not baby stomach acid, so babies under one year old need to be kept away from it.

That spoon is basically fine because you removed surface dirt which could have been harboring germs or spores. But a large part of the reason why it’s fine is that you are a healthy adult with a functioning immune system and acid in your stomach. Your innate defences kill off thousands of threats every day.

Interestingly, once you have put that spoon in your mouth and then into some food you can have introduced mouth germs into the food, which then can grow and produce toxins which are not killed by boiling the food. So yeah, sometimes there are worse germs in a healthy mouth than in a cow shit.

(Using germ to cover all fungi, bacteria, viruses and others)

Anonymous 0 Comments

It’s a really weird question without a good answer.

If we could figure out exactly what bacteria was on the spoon and how much, we could calculate how long it lives on average and probably figure out when all the bacteria would be dead. But if some of the poop was on the spoon, the bacteria could live longer. We could account for that, too.

If there were toxins in the poop itself, the spoon might never be safe unless washed. It depends on what the toxins are and if you’re exposing them to light, heat, etc.

Even accounting for those, sometimes the immune system gets tricked by dead bacteria and can mount a response. This is why surgical instruments aren’t just heated to sterilize them, they’re also intensely scrubbed. We figured out the burnt-up husks of bacteria and other things could STILL trigger immune responses and interfere with healing.

Safe’s a spectrum. With enough math we could figure out when the spoon is “probably” safe. It’s a lot faster to clean it with soap and warm water.