Producer Commentary

PROGRAM: Planet of the Bugs

AUTHOR: Larry Massett

October 2001:

Occasionally, a producer's favorite tape doesn't make it into the final show.

Sometimes there just isn't room for it. Sometimes an editor declares it off-topic. Occasionally there are technical problems with the sound-maybe a hum of fluorescent lights in the room, or the annoying drone of airplanes overhead.

Now and then the person being interviewed will undermine things. I fondly recall one eminent, elderly professor at Yale who, against all advice, was determined to cuddle a slobbering golden retriever on his lap while speaking. The two of them made a nice picture, but on radio--absent the picture--it sounded as though the professor himself was panting and drooling.

Here, however, is an example of a interview which was short, well-recorded, and editor-approved, but cut from "Genetics of Infectious Disease" program, anyway.

See if you can guess why.

Here's the background: Dr. X is a microbiologist interested in public health. He stalks germs in public restrooms, airports, kitchens, and so on, and says he always finds an appalling amount of them. Maybe you've read about Dr. X in the newspapers or seen him on television; a lot of reporters seem to keep his phone number in their Rolodexes.

He is, as they say, "good copy." Did you know, for example, that in airport restrooms the stall with the least germs is the one nearest the entrance? Apparently it's clean because it's the least-used; it just doesn't strike most people as cozy and private as the others. (Take note, frequent travelers.)

I wanted Dr. X for the program because I heard he had worked up a sort of dog-and-pony show going into people's home. He has the power to expose the microbial nightmare lurking under the surface of any house. He can do it fast, too. (Producers are suckers for folks who have their act down.)

It turned out Dr. X was flying into Washington, D.C., for a one-day conference and had an hour to kill before flying out again. My own house was too far away for him; besides, I keep a compost heap right by the kitchen door, and that's an absurdly easy target.

But would he come to a friend's apartment to do his act?

Of course he would.

Now, my friend Amy has the neatest, most elegant apartment this side of Paris. You could lick the parquet floors; you can see your face reflecting in the enamel countertops. The antique lace curtains billowing in the breeze smell of lavender.

The place is clean, okay?

But not to Dr. X. He doesn't care what it looks like because microbes are invisible. He marched straight to the kitchen and pointed accusingly at the sink.

Dr.X: There are actually more fecal bacteria in your sink than in your toilet after you flush it. When you're cutting up a carrot and it drops in the sink, don't you just pick it up and wash it off and throw it back in the salad? Would you do that if it fell in the toilet?

Amy: Well....

Dr. X: Where else would you want to live if you were a bacterium? Here, you've got warm water coming in, you're dropping food - the kitchen is a great place to live. Think about it: every time you bring a raw meat product in here - don't you just wash it off in the sink?

Well that doesn't actually kill the bacteria, they find new places to live - like right here. See the ring right around the drain? Oh, this is a great place: the garbage disposal area. If you were a microbe, wouldn't you want to live right there? The other prime area in here is your cutting board, do you have a cutting board?

Amy: Uh, yeah, and this is really old, so I'm sure it's really got -

Dr. X: In fact there are 200 times more fecal bacteria on the average cutting board than the average toilet seat. The cleanest place we find is actually the toilet seat. Not that I'm recommending making meals on the toilet seat. But it shows the perception that people have is kind of backwards.

Amy: Why aren't we sick?

Dr. X: We are, actually. The rate of Salmonella infections has increased 400 percent in the last 40 years, and the incidence of diarrhea has increased 20 percent in the last 50 years.

Amy: Why is there so much Salmonella and all that out there? Is it because of the food sources?

Dr. X: Good question. Yes, because we probably have a more contaminated food supply than we ever had. Think about it, a hundred years ago, if you wanted a chicken you went out and grabbed one around the neck and made it for dinner. If it had Salmonella, only your family got ill. Today, that chicken is thrown in with hundreds of thousands of other chickens, and if it had Salmonella, thousands of chickens are contaminated.

Amy: Do you get invited over much?

Dr. X: No, I tend to eat out. You have less risk of getting ill because the health department inspects the restaurant. They don't inspect you. If the health department came into most homes they would fail....


Now, this is a pretty funny bit of tape. Everyone who hears it laughs and squirms at the same time. When looking over the transcript, I did wonder about some of Dr. X's assertions.

Is it really true most homes would flunk a health department inspection? Mine might, what the compost pile by the kitchen, and the dining room doubling as an amateur bicycle repair shop. But most homes? From what I read in the papers, restaurants appear to get shut down only for gross affronts, like "titanic rat infestation."

What are the health department's standards, anyway?

This question is a snap to answer. One call to the local health officials should settle whether Dr. X is right or wrong. I never made the call, though. The bit about the health department comes at the end of the tape, but the piece is doomed long before that.

The fatal blow falls right at the beginning, in the very first lines. And it's not a factual error. Dr. X is telling the truth, yet I believe he's counting on you to misunderstand.

Strictly speaking, the mistake will be yours.

Look at the beginning of the dialogue again. If you didn't see it before, do you see now where it goes off track?

I'll tell you...

Dr.X : There are actually more fecal bacteria in your sink than in your toilet after you flush it....

Naturally, when you hear "fecal bacteria" in the same sentence as "toilet," you take it to mean human fecal bacteria. This is what you'd expect to find in your toilet, and it's shocking to be told there's actually more of it your sink.

Suddenly the sink is a dangerous place. Bizarre suspicions arise: have the neighbors been sneaking into your kitchen late at night and... no, no, surely not?

No. Let's assume nothing more sinister than, say, a bit of raw hamburger meat has landed in your sink. Hamburgers, in their natural state, are cows. Cows can harbor a particular strain of bacteria called E. coli O157, which makes people ill. As a rule, these bacteria spend their lives in the cows' digestive tracts, doing no harm. (Other, inoffensive strains of E. coli live in our own intestines.)

Most of the time, E. coli is called an "intestinal bacteria." But when scientists are trying to explain how the bad strain gets from the cow to us, they call up the word "feces."

Dr. Mike Doyle, professor of food and microbiology at the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, explains (in tape cut from the show for reasons of time):

Dr. Doyle: E. coli O157 is carried by cattle in the intestinal tract, and subsequently shed in the manure. And the organism can live in the manure for weeks to months, depending on conditions.

The primary way in which E. coli O157 gets into beef is through contamination. During the slaughtering process, the feces from inside the animal can sometimes get onto the carcass if the intestinal tract is cut. Sometimes the hide, which is often contaminated by manure, will contact the carcass when the hide is removed from the animal. In the end, it's "fecal contamination." So, E. coli in this context can be called "fecal bacteria."

The same goes for bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter, which inhabit the intestines of chickens. These are the kinds of "fecal" bacteria to which Dr. X refers when he makes jaw-dropping statements like, "there are 200 times more fecal bacteria on the average cutting board than the average toilet seat."

Once you realize what kind of "fecal bacteria" he means, there is nothing astonishing about this statistic. Indeed it would be astonishing if it were not the case-it would suggest someone has been processing chickens and hamburgers on your toilet seat.

The moral is that it's very, very easy for experts to mislead us. They don't even need to lie. (They don't seem to need much of a motive either; I assume Dr. X was just trying to liven up the party.)

If you have time, look at the interview again and ask yourself: where do these facts and these numbers come from? Says who? You might have to do some research.

You might have to become ... an expert.