By: Alice Vo Edwards

You may have read the news about the E. coli outbreak in Boston and thought you were safe because you live outside the city. Unfortunately, it is not true. As of Thursday, fifteen people had been confirmed in the outbreak and eat least five of those live in areas outside of Boston. There was another The Chicken & Rice Guys food truck in Watertown, Massachusetts, and it was notified Sunday, April 16th, 2017 that their permit was suspended due to the E. coli investigation.

No one knows yet about the source of the E. coli outbreak. It could have been contaminated food, or one or more of the employees may have been sick and not used proper hand sanitation and spread it. Until the cause is tracked down, everyone in the greater Boston metropolitan area should be extra vigilant both for any symptoms, and in their safety practices.

What is E. coli?

The simplest explanation for E. coli is that it is a bacterium that lives in the digestive tract of humans and animals. Most species of E. coli are not harmful, but others, like E. coli O157:H7, E. coli O26, or E. coli O121, can produce a dangerous toxin that makes people sick. This toxin, called a Shiga toxin, essentially kills blood cells (hemolytic anemia) and intestinal lining cells (hemorrhagic colitis). This is the cause for the concerning symptom of E. coli infections – bloody diarrhea.

Generally, E. coli infections have other symptoms apart from watery, and sometimes bloody, diarrhea. Other symptoms could include: nausea, abdominal pain or cramping, vomiting, and sometimes, a low grade fever. More severe cases may develop a reduction in urination, pale skin, easy bruising, and extreme fatigue.

Unlike its fellow foodborne bacteria, Listeria for instance, it only takes a few E. coli cells to get someone sick, sometimes as few as 10 cells. This is another reason why E. coli is so dangerous.

Is it really that easy to get infected?

Easy may not be the right word. This isn’t a plague. At the same time, why risk it? The 0157:H7 strain, known as STEC, can cause death and at minimum, is extremely unpleasant. Also, the insidious danger of E. coli is in how easily it can be spread; an infected person who may or may not realize they are infected can spread it simply by not washing their hands after going to the bathroom. E. coli particles are microscopic and let’s face it – many people, even with all the news about diseases, still don’t wash their hands every time they use the restroom.

Doesn’t E. coli Die when exposed to air?

Some people have been told that bacteria like E. coli die when exposed to air, so they don’t have to worry about getting second-hand infections. Unfortunately, it is not true. A study was performed at Auburn University where they put E. coli on different parts of the plane, such as the armrest, toilet handle, and tray table. E. coli lived on the armrest for more than 48 hours, on the toilet handle for over 24 hours, and disgustingly, for over 72 hours on the Tray Table!

I don’t think I’ll be flying without some Lysol disinfectant wet wipes or alcohol hand sanitizer any time soon! If you go shopping, remember, Lysol and Clorox are two of the best household disinfectants. Suddenly, the people wearing face masks in the airport don’t seem so paranoid…

The study did show that it tends to live longest on porous surfaces, which is one of the reasons you see stainless steel in most commercial kitchens instead of the granite counters so popular in home kitchens (less cracks for bacteria to make homes in and contaminate!). E. coli also prefers moist air, so areas with humid air are more at risk than drier climes.

There was an E. coli outbreak due to an infected water supply, demonstrating that infected water can carry the bacteria for some time. The spinach and SoyNut Butter outbreaks similarly demonstrate that it can live for some time as long as it has access to some type of moisture and doesn’t get hot enough to be killed off.

What are the safety practices needed to prevent myself or my family from getting E. coli?

Michael Schmidt, a professor of immunology at the Medical University of South Carolina gave his best advice for protecting yourself against accidental infection for if you’re in an area like a plane or other public place. “It’s all about risk mitigation.” says Schmidt. “Before you put anything into your mouth [or that of any of your children] bring some alcohol hand sanitizer and sanitize your hands… After I wipe my hands, I use the rest of the alcohol wipe to wipe down the tabletop, just in case I touch it and inadvertently eat something.”

A few other simple rules to live by are:

  • Do not feed yourself or your children, without washing your hands first.
  • Don’t let anyone in your family cook without washing your hands first.
  • If anyone in your family is throwing up or has diarrhea that needs to be cleaned up, the Boston Public Health Commission recommends that you wear a mask.
  • If someone has been sick, especially with diarrhea, don’t let them swim or take baths with other people until a few days after the diarrhea stops.
  • If anyone in your family has been ill, don’t just clean house, disinfect. That means using Lysol or bleach to scrub surfaces and wipe down any surfaces or household utensils that may have been used while the individual was ill. The University of Rochester says you can make a cheap disinfectant at home by adding 1 tablespoon liquid chlorine bleach to 1 gallon of water. The caveat is that the bleach will evaporate and become less effective, so if you make it at home, you have to make a new solution every 2 or 3 days so that it remains effective.
  • If you have a dishwasher, use the sterilizing hot setting. It helps to kill bacteria.

UnsafeFoods will continue to provide coverage on this outbreak as the details unfold so check back for updates.