As Texas slowly reopens, you’re probably counting down the days until things return to normal. Though we’re able to start venturing out, keeping a safe distance from others and wearing masks is still a part of life we’ll need to get used to.
If you’re wondering why these safety methods will continue to be necessary even after lockdowns are lifted, an experiment from an old episode of the popular American television show “MythBusters” provides an excellent rationale.
In the episode “Flu Fiction,” the hosts, Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman, test out just how easy it is to unknowingly contaminate everyone (and everything) with your germs when you’re around a group of people. Then they conduct an experiment to see if following appropriate precautions really does decrease the rate of contamination.
How a Virus Spreads so Easily
The tricky thing about germs is that we can’t see them. Unlike those television commercials for cleaning products that show germs as fluorescent smudges, we have no way of knowing if something is riddled with germs just by looking at it. That is, until the MythBusters come to the rescue.
The experiment begins with Adam being rigged up with a clear tubing that dispels fluid at the same rate that a nose would drip if you were sick. While the fluid appears clear to the average person, placed under a black light, the fluid glows a bright pink color, showing up anywhere — and on anyone — that gets contaminated.
After testing their device, and using the help of makeup to disguise it, they set Adam loose on a party of people, telling half the test subjects about his fake cold and leaving the other half in the dark about it. The test subjects (Grant, Kari and Tory) who know about Adam’s cold will try their best to avoid him, thus lowering their risk of becoming contaminated at the party.
Within seconds of the party starting, Adam greets his guests as most would, by shaking their hands, but before doing so he wipes his running nose with his hand. Adam admits to his guests that he’s a bit under the weather, but continues on with the party, pouring champagne for his guests, handing out party games, touching them on their shoulder as they speak, serving cake, etc. He ends the party by giving everyone a hug or a handshake, not unlike you would do at your own get-together.
After about 30 minutes, Adam and Jamie reveal to their unsuspecting guests just what was going on, and as they shine the black light on them, all but one of the party guests are covered in traces of pink fluorescent dye — meaning even some of the guests who knew Adam was “sick” were unable to avoid becoming contaminated by him.
When asked how many people were now likely to be harboring Adam’s germs, he responds, “I’d say five out of the six of you have been legitimately exposed with only a thirty minute dinner party.”
Upon inspection, Kari is the only partygoer to make it out unscathed, which wasn’t surprising to her as a self-proclaimed ‘germaphobe.’
“Even though I knew Adam had a fake cold, I was still kind of grossed out by the idea,” she says. “So I kind of employed all of my usual techniques not to get sick. I didn’t touch anything or anywhere that he touched and when he handed me something, I wiped it off with my napkin.”
Grant and Tory blame social conventions for why it was so hard to keep from catching whatever Adam had.
“He’s trying to be a good host; he’s filling up my glass; he’s handing me pretzels, and I’m trying to be polite and not touch anything he’s touching. But at a certain point, you just can’t help it anymore,” Tory says as he sits among the tablescape, now glowing a bright pink with the artificial germs.
“Right at the very end of dinner as we were saying our goodbyes, Adam stuck out his hand and I had to shake it,” says Grant. “You know what? If someone sticks out their hand, you can’t avoid shaking it! And that’s where he got me.”
Keeping People Safe
By now it’s clear how even a simple runny nose can produce some widespread consequences. So, if you’re a bit under the weather, how can you avoid contaminating those around you when you absolutely have to go out or interact with others?
“Look around, look at just how far and wide my secretions have spread to everywhere on this table. Next time you think you’ve got an innocuous runny nose think again,” Adam says with a chuckle. “So where does that lead us? Suppose the person with the runny nose is acting more responsibly. Suppose they’re trying to keep others from getting infected. We’re going to do everything the same, but this time around, I’m going to do everything to keep my germs from spreading.”
With a new set of unsuspecting guests, the party gets underway. Adam begins by letting everyone know that he’s got a cold. Instead of shaking hands, he greets his guests with an elbow bump — a greeting that has gained widespread awareness during the coronavirus pandemic.
As the party goes on, Adam not only tries to limit direct contact with his guests, but he also tries to limit indirect contact, enlisting their help to pass out glasses, pour champagne, handle party games, etc.
In stark contrast to the first experiment, by the end of the party, Adam manages to not contaminate anyone using his cautionary measures.
“I have to say that was amazing,” Grant says. “Just by a simple change of technique, you can prevent everyone at the party from getting sick.”
Similar to the “virus” in this study, the coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets generated when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose. To protect yourself and others, it’s necessary to wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Even then, you should pay special attention to what (or whom) you touch, because even if you’re following the precautions, you never know who else may or may not be. And stay home if you’re not feeling well, even after the shelter-in-place order is lifted.
“It’s really impressive to me that viruses have found the one place on the human body not only capable of producing enough fluid but doing it in such a way that human hands are inclined to mop that fluid up, and then they can spread themselves and propagate really quickly,” Jamie says. “[The best way to prevent the spread is] if you’re sick, you need to take some personal responsibility.”
While this experiment focuses on an actively sick person, it’s important for everyone to wear masks, wash their hands and take necessary precautions such as safe distancing, especially since the coronavirus can take days to produce symptoms. Remember, when you follow proper safe distancing practices, you’re not just protecting yourself, but you’re protecting others as well.