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Might Be More Than Java in Your Mug

March 31, 1998

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) _ What’s brewing inside that coffee mug you faithfully fill at the office might jolt you more than the 180-proof caffeine kick from the java juice.

Don’t look now, but there’s a good chance countless critters are growin’ at the bottom, sides or all over _ especially if yours is one of those mugs with a warming lid, University of Arizona researchers say.

You really won’t see them anyway, because they’re microscopic, but that doesn’t mean that bacteria in the cup _ including harmless varieties and scarier stuff like Escherichia coli _ aren’t having their own population booms.

All because people don’t take care to carefully wash out their cups or mugs, and to disinfect sinks and preparation areas in offices everywhere.

``Ewwww! That’s yukky!″ said Gabriella Rico, a spokeswoman at the Pima County Juvenile Court Center, who first identified herself as a coffee drinker. After learning about tests conducted by Charles Gerba and Ralph Meer, she revised her estimate. ``I take that back,″ Rico said. ``I’m not a coffee drinker any more.″

In the Tucson city manager’s office, secretary Diane Villegas, another coffee drinker, said she had read about Gerba’s and Meer’s study. ``Let’s put it this way: this morning I used a paper cup,″ she said.

Villegas said she hasn’t gotten sick yet rinsing her regular mug out and drying it with a paper towel, and probably won’t resort to antibacterial soap.

``Like most people, they initially change and then slowly fall back into their old ways,″ she said.

And at the University of Arizona’s facilities management office, coffee drinker Alex Leon said he’s had the same cup for two years, runs water through it regularly and can’t remember washing it out with soap.

Gerba and Meers published their results in the journal ``Dairy Food and Environmental Sanitation.″

``The premise was that there’s usually coffee and food preparation areas in offices, and usually these areas are not sanitary,″ Gerba said.

The leading culprits are sponges and dishrags. ``We’re finding that those things are pretty unsanitary,″ rife with coliform bacteria, Gerba said.

``In our study, about 40 percent of the cups had coliforms in them. That’s usually indicative of unsanitary conditions.″

Gerba said cups with lids were particularly effective bacterial breeding areas _ occasionally for E. coli.

Gerba and Meer tested dishes, sinks, cups, dishrags and sponges in offices. About 20 percent of the sponges tested showed E. coli. ``And we wiped the cups and found that we could transfer the E. coli,″ Gerba said.

A few swipes, and a clean-looking rag or sponge could leave a million organisms.

Gerba said paper towels probably could help reduce a mug’s bacteria but that even antibacterial soap has little effect against intestinal bacteria.

Best bets: wash in hot, soapy water, then disinfect with a bleach-and-water solution or cleaning disinfectant or run the mug through a dishwasher. Wash or disinfect rags and sponges regularly.

``The risk is low, but it’s there, particularly if you work with a slob,″ Gerba said.

Federal and local health officials said they won’t be getting involved in studying bacteria in office mugs.

But Javier Leon, Pima County’s health and food safety manager, agreed with Gerba about sponges and rags, and cautioned against using them to clean the insides of coffee pots.

The key issue, he said, is washing one’s hands.

Meanwhile, Rico had a different idea: ``Maybe it’s time to switch to tea,″ she said.

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