Germs can move faster than three-second rule

Ohio State basketball coach Thad Matta recently shocked some germ freaks by invoking the legendary three-second rule during a game.

After accidentally spitting out his chewing gum, Matta scooped it off the floor and popped it back into his mouth, explaining that it hadn't been on the ground long enough to be contaminated.


But just how germy was that sticky gum? And was Matta better off because he picked up his gum in three seconds rather than five?

Researchers who have actually looked into the three- to five-second rule say, "Nope, sorry."


Despite the heroic attempt to minimize waste, time is not a factor when food is exposed to bacteria, according to both common sense and Jillian Clarke of Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, who tested the theory several years ago for a college internship.

Actually, the critical thing is what you're using to pick up the food and where you've dropped it.

The average office desk, for example, harbors 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat, according to University of Arizona researcher Charles Gerba, aka Dr. Germ.

And teachers' work spaces have more bacteria than those in most other professions, followed by surfaces used by accountants and bankers, Gerba said.

In the home, the kitchen harbors more germs than any other room in the house, according to the Journal of Applied Microbiology. The greatest germ concentrations lurk in kitchen sponges and dishcloths, but sink drains, faucet handles and doorknobs are next highest on the list.

That means, of course, that it's important to wash your hands before picking food up off the floor if you're going to eat it. But not everyone does.

Gerba has found office candy bowls are often high in bacteria and sometimes even contain fecal bacteria. Yuck!

Here are a few more of Clarke's findings:


Seventy percent of women and 56 percent of men are familiar with the three- or five-second rule, and most use it to make decisions about tasty treats that slip through their fingers.

Cookies and candy are much more likely to be retrieved and eaten than cauliflower or broccoli.

University floors are remarkably clean from a microbial standpoint.

Women are more likely than men to eat food that has been on the floor.

If you drop your food on a floor that does contain microorganisms, the food can be contaminated in five seconds or less.

Germs aside, what it really comes down to is how much you value what is dropped and whether anyone is looking. How much did you pay for the item? How hungry are you?


"I dropped a piece of roasted chicken with a tiny bit of sauce on the floor, and it was too good to throw out. I ate it, and I have not gotten sick," said Mary Trucksa, 50, of Chicago.

Candace Barnes, 27, of Chicago refuses to salvage any food drenched in barbecue sauce. She will, however, eat a dropped piece of hard candy, prescription pill or slice of cheesecake if the top half did not have any contact with the floor.

And Suzanne Yow, who can't eat hamburgers without french fries, recalled the day her fries landed in a "small, sad pile" in a parking lot. Yow trudged back to her office and gazed at her fryless Big Mac before making an inspired run back to the parking lot.

"I carefully chose fries that hadn't actually touched the ground off of the pile similar to the game of pickup sticks I had played as a child," said Yow, 43, of Long Beach, Calif.

But what if you lose more than your gum? Chicago's Abby Brinkman, 29, recently spotted rap artist and reality television personality Flavor Flav, who credits himself with having originated the current platinum grill (a decorative dental insert) craze, wrestling with the issue at a Chili's inside Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

"While shuffling through the crowd, Flav's grill fell out right onto the icky, sticky, grimy barroom floor," Brinkman said.


"He picked it up, popped it right back into his mouth, and when confronted with incredulous stares, said, 'Hey, I've had a lot worse in there.' Horrifying, yet funny."

Julie Deardorf writes for the Chicago Tribune.