Free Food and Germaphobia

July 3rd, 2012

I’ve never thought of myself as a germaphobe, but a recent conversation has made me reconsider. While I have no problems touching doorknobs, shaking hands, or using public restrooms, there has always been one thing that has grossed me out: the trays of free food commonly found at social events in grad school.

I have never understood the excitement sparked in chemistry departments by free food. I had friends in grad school who would walk halfway across campus because they heard a rumor that there might be two-hour-old Chinese food up for grabs. I saw labmates in college abscond from parties with entire pizza pies when they could easily have bought a slice for $1.50 at the pizzeria across the street. Yeah, grad students and postdocs aren’t typically paid that well, but my stipend never seemed so small as to merit dropping everything for a plate of cold pad thai only minutes away from being tossed in the garbage. I wish I could feel the same sense of accomplishment as the people who seem to live for free food.

The fact that the food is free is not what turns me off, it’s the presentation. See for yourself. Here is a video from one of the Christmas parties I attended in grad school:

Yes, I exaggerate, but is slopping pigs that far off from what takes place at departmental buffets? In both cases: (i) food is dispensed in massive aluminum troughs, (ii) you can never identify the food in the troughs with certainty, and (iii) people are packed so tightly around the troughs that it is impossible for the food not to become contaminated. It’s also fun when the party is held outdoors and a swarm of insects runs for cover whenever someone picks up the spoon for the baba ghanoush. Yuck.

What brought all of this up? At a recent party, I was criticized by some lab mates for my failure to partake of the free food, and I responded by sharing my thoughts above. I also reminded them of an event at a recent group meeting, where a lab mate of ours (i) ate a handful of Cheetos, (ii) proceeded to clean his hands by sucking the orange gunk off of each finger, then (iii) inserted his hands back in the communal bag for a second helping. As I watched this atrocity unfold over the course of five minutes, I wanted to scream out in horror. I settled for sharing looks of abject disgust with three other people who also had a front-row seat to this sideshow. So, allow me to apologize in advance for being antisocial in not feeding from loosely patrolled communal sources of food. Instead, I will gladly pay $5 to be disappointed by a foot-long B.M.T. from Subway, in peace.

In the wake of this anti-trough debate, I tried to think of other examples that might lend credence to the argument that I am an OCD germaphobe. I came up with one thing that I don’t think is too bad, but is worth sharing since it involves chemistry. When cleaning my bathroom, I insist on using a cleaning product with bleach. I really don’t think that surfactants alone can get the job done—you need a hardcore oxidant to get in the game and annihilate germs. With that said, in the past, I have paid the price for this cleaning preference by ruining a fair number of clothes when they’ve brushed against a surface with residual bleach.

My eventual solution was simple. Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to mix cleaning products that contain bleach with those that contain ammonia because you will produce chlorinated amine gases that are toxic. Taking advantage of these reactions, after wiping down a surface with bleach, I’ll make sure to wipe it down with Windex to quench any residual hypochlorite. Is this routine obsessive? Possibly, but it’s been a long time since I’ve ruined a shirt from my fantastically expensive wardrobe. And the importance of these savings cannot be underestimated. If I’m not going to take advantage of free food, I’ve got to find ways to save money elsewhere.

22 Responses to “Free Food and Germaphobia”

  1. Tom Says:

    Good read but I think your conclusion contains slightly fuzzy logic! “I’ve got to find ways to save money elsewhere.” your method of saving money involves using two cleaning products instead of one. To be fair it only saves you money compared to people who use bleach and don’t quench it. Compared with the normal person who just uses a single surfactant you’re spending more.

  2. Former Merck Chemist Says:

    paying 13 bucks for a Texas Orange Polo seems a little steep to me

  3. Tom Phillips Says:

    I completely agree with you. I don’t understand why everyone goes crazy for it – maybe it’s a social bonding thing?

    Plates of smelly, stale sandwiches regularly turn up in my poorly ventilated, warm office. They sit out for hours, being picked at by passers by, often overnight unless someone _kindly_ puts them in the fridge where they continue to fester and are periodically pulled out, prodded and nibbled. Errrgh.

    I’m vegetarian and am useless at identifying whether something is vegetarian, so platters are almost always a disappointment. Can’t stand the cross contamination either.

  4. John Spevacek Says:

    So where are all the sick people? If you can show me cause and effect, not just the potential, you could convince me. Otherwise you’re like the people that are doing such a good job of chasing away all the hairy-nosed wombats from the lab – they must be doing a great job since there are none around!

  5. cookingwithsolvents Says:

    Wow, I’d have called out a labmate for double dipping through finger-proxy…in private and later on, but still…ugh!

    I still have no problem with eating reasonably served food at seminars, department functions, and other events. If our immune systems were that compromised we’d have been naturally selected a long time ago. I also have no problem with your personal decision because I saw that mythbusters (I’ll never forget incubation time matters, too). To each their own.

    Be careful cleaning your house, too. How about using a solution of vitamin C instead?

  6. John Spevacek Says:

    I’ve mentioned it before: Chemists are well familiar with the LD50 concept – how come it doesn’t seem to catch on in (micro)biology? 1 E. coli H7:O157 will not make you sick, but if it shows up on a plate – lordy lordy there is hell to pay.

  7. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    It’s not really about free food, is it? It’s about a race to the finish, about one-upping that obnoxious brown-noser who always gets to the plate before you. It’s about raw animal competition. And I love it.

  8. Chemjobber Says:

    CW: lol

    I too am a big fan of the cleaning properties of bleach.

  9. Bruno Voisard Says:

    That makes me wonder: is it me, or chemists are usually less scared about toxics than about biohazard or other dangers? Anyway, I would, me too, choose chlorinated amines over another chemist’s microbiome sample, in this context – or in a public pool.

  10. John Li Says:

    It is nice to know this happens in everywhere.
    Every PhD and Postdoc in my department loves free food and drinks and we never waste any free food and drinks too.

  11. Paul Says:

    @Former Merck Chemist: The trick is patience. Hanes will regularly hold sales where the polos go for $8.99 or buy 2 get 1. It’s kind of like how there’s no reason to shop at Macy’s or Bed, Bath, & Beyond without one of their ubiquitous 20%-off coupons.

    @John S.: I agree that there is little evidence that anyone has gotten sick from germs transferred via free departmental food, but surely the appeal of the food factors into the joy of eating. The incident at group meeting was truly foul, and it’d take a lot more than a few free Cheetos for me to consider eating from that bag, despite the long odds of getting sick from it.

  12. Matt Says:

    Snarky comments are so much funnier when I know who is being described :)

  13. wolfie Says:

    I consider myself as a germophobe, because only this is correct greek. Or would you say of yourself : I’m spaniaphil ?

    Too bad to be true.

  14. Alec Says:

    Paul: Just a small clarification. It was a bag of Doritos, not Cheetos. I will never forgive you for not telling me this story until AFTER I had finished the bag.

  15. Paul Says:

    @John: This post is more about what goes on in my head than any rational perception of risk. The fact that Alec is alive, well, and able to leave comments on this post demonstrates that even one of the most egregious violations of shared-food etiquette had no negative implications for the victim’s health.

    And while no one has risen to mount the argument here, I think there is a lot to be said in support of free food. Obviously, offering food at seminars and meetings helps encourage participation, and most people enjoy it and opt to participate. It is an important part of grad school life in encouraging social interaction and demonstrating appreciation for the troops in the form of a gift. And there is no downside to having it either, as those who don’t wish to eat need not do so.

    My problem—and it is more a problem in my head than a real problem or health concern—is not with free food. Rather, it is a trust issue with some of my classmates/colleagues. A table of food left unattended and open to people who have committed Doritos-type atrocities sets off bells and whistles in my head. It has nothing to do with the food and everything to do with poor behavior of some people and my perception of it.

  16. Postdoc Says:

    There was a guy in my group who never washed his hands after going to the bathroom. I’m not exaggerating in using the word never, I watched him walk away from both the urinal and the stall right back to his desk. Suffice to say, I never reached into any bag of snacks after his hands invaded them.

  17. I know it's a joke but... Says:

    I know it’s a joke but how does Windex quench hypochlorite?

  18. Paul Says:

    Hypochlorite reacts with the ammonia in Windex in a redox process to generate a mixture of products. I have no idea what the exact mechanism is, but what’s leftover are weaker oxidants (than hypochlorite) that are also more volatile (so they evaporate). That’s why Windex is effective at removing the last traces of bleach from a surface that might otherwise ruin your clothes. It’s also why you shouldn’t mix bleach and ammonia/Windex in larger volumes.

  19. Hap Says:

    I thought hypochlorite was in equilibrium with chlorine and water/hydroxide – reaction with ammonia gnerates chloramine, dichloramine, and nitrogen trichloride. I don’t know what happens to the other two but NCl3 goes exothermically to Cl2 and N2 (which would potentially make hypochlorite a catalyst for the oxidation of ammonia to nitrogen). None of the chloramines are terribly happy molecules.

    In this case, though, there wouldn’t be much of any of them around – excess ammonia would probably give hydrazine, which could be air oxidized to N2? I’m not sure.

  20. I know it's a joke but... Says:

    Paul, Read the MSDS of Windex, it’s not ammonia… It’s ammonia-D(which has nothing to do with ammonia what-so-ever). In fact it says to keep away from strong oxidants.

  21. Paul Says:

    I am pretty sure Windex has ammonia in it. What is ammonia-D, anyway? And to be honest, I use the knock-off Windex sold at Office Depot for $1/bottle, because I am cheap. The label says “Streak Free with AMMONIA”. I’ll post a pic later tonight.

  22. Paul Says:


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