Free Food and GermaphobiaJuly 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.