Tech & Science

Gadget Lust: Keeping the Germs (and the Hypochondria) at Bay

09_05_DT0410_Germs_01
09/12/14
In the Magazine
New weapons to keep germs (and hypochondria) away. Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

On a trip to England when I was 15, I was forced by my well-meaning but clueless parents to wait in line for over an hour to get into the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. Aside from the obvious injustice of forcing a teenager to parade through a museum with exhibits such as Sextants Through History—which was even more annoying once I realized sextants had nothing to do with sex—I had to wait in a sea of people—sweaty, dirty, germ-laden people. As I milled about, surrounded by the great unwashed, my latent fear of germs bloomed like staphylococcus in a warm Petri dish.

It was there that my addled adolescent mind began to dream up ways to fight germs en masse. I pondered shrink-wrapping people—temporarily, of course. What if the Yankees had “Surgical Glove and Mask Day,” along with Bat Day? “This mask sponsored by Cipro, the antibiotic that doesn’t quit until you do.” My favorite concept was a metal detector with jet sprayers of disinfectant. Patrons of amusement parks, cinemas and even schools would walk through brighter, cleaner and less germy.

And while none of my concepts are quite ready for Kickstarter, I am not alone in my germ-trollin’. The marketplace is full of gadgets and tools to keep the little baddies at bay. There is the Trayguard, a washable antimicrobial cover for airplane tray tables that uses copper and silver ions to keep disgusting things from attacking you, because we all know those tables don’t get washed more than once a decade. (To clean the armrests, there is Lysol in a handy TSA-approved travel size.) Disposable sheets are available in case you need to cover the bus station bathroom floor because you have to change your clothes. Magellan’s Travel Supplies offers Flight Spray, a nasal spray that contains Hawaiian turmeric and spearmint—natural antiseptics—to defend your nasal passages while you fly. Or you can buy your own hazmat suit, but since I hate how my butt looks in a hazmat suit, I tested a few products that addressed specific concerns I have when I’m traveling or out and about, to see if they could help calm me down.

 

The thoughtful folks at Camelbak have a water bottle that can purify water in 60 seconds. It looks almost exactly like the Camelbaks you see in gyms and yoga classes, but with the Camelbak All Clear ($99), the difference is in the cap, which contains a lithium-battery-powered ultraviolet light. It weighs more, too—close to 9 ounces—thanks to the electronics in the lid, but it’s a small price to pay for clean water. Along with having a practical use in a world where, according to a joint report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF, 780 million people lack access to safe drinking water, it can soothe the hypochondriacal soul closer to home, when the only water around for drinking, as I sweat-jog my way around the muggy local park, is from a water fountain that has just been licked by a man and his German shepherd. The dog was the least of my worries, as it turns out—the water system attached to that fountain tested positive for E. coli a few days later. With the Camelbak, I was able to process the water, then drink it with less fear. Not to mention that the hefty bottle helps tone my arms.

While we’re on the subject of dirty water, and with apologies to my mother, who taught me it wasn’t polite to talk about bathroom habits, hear this: Bringing your mobile device into the bathroom is disgusting. From your germy little fingers to the shower of E. coli that sprays from your toilet each time you flush without closing the lid, that iPhone is a microbiologist’s wonderland. Lucky us, there’s PhoneSoap Charger($59.95). I popped my phone into the PhoneSoap, which is actually a small machine that looks like a pint-sized tanning bed that sanitizes your phone with UV light. I placed my phone inside the small white box, hooked up my charging cable and four minutes later the phone was sterilized. PhoneSoap will sanitize anything that will fit inside the 6-inch-by-3.75-inch-by-.75-inch device. Pacifiers, electric toothbrush heads and anything that’s been within 10 miles of the Emory University Hospital are all good options.

Hotels come with their own special concerns: I spend a good part of every vacation searching for bedbugs and their telltale rust-colored stains. I never, ever use the glasses in the bathroom, even if they’ve been “sanitized for my safety.” I’ve even pondered getting something like Hotel Inspector, a black light to search for stains, but just throw the bedspread into the closet first thing instead.

One motel stay with my family at the Jersey Shore made me less judgmental of people who carry their own pillows when they travel. I spent the night in a room where the pillows could’ve had pillowcases with “George Washington Slept Here” on them. My head hovered over them all night long, as I was afraid to lay it down, pondering the decades of drool and God-knows-what-else that had seeped into them. My blissfully ignorant children snoozed quietly, and I let them. I didn’t want to poison my children with my concerns about germs, so I let them sleep without wrapping the pillows in Saran Wrap first. Had I known of the MyPillow ($29.95), an adorable travel pillow that rolls up tight and doesn’t take up much room, I would’ve slept that night. Did I mention it’s washable and I now carry it everywhere?

In a world where Ebola, MERS and measles are ever-more pressing dangers, perhaps you think my focus on personal germ warfare is a tad silly. Maybe. But I will still let you borrow my Lysol.

Either way, go wash your hands.

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