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In between social distancing, staying at home, and sanitizing every room in the house, we all have to face one inevitable fact: we gotta eat.
Eventually, a designated member of the family makes the trip to the grocery store and maybe stops at the hardware store on the way home. Hands are washed before departure and upon returning home, precious hand sanitizers are used after leaving the store, and some people even wear a mask when going out.
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But what about the things we buy?
The novel coronavirus is transmitted primarily by airborne droplets from a cough or sneeze and then inhaled by someone or through contact with a mucous membrane like the eyes, lips, throat, and nose.
A second form of transmission is vector transmission where the droplets fall onto a surface. When someone touches the surface, they have the potential to contract the disease by then touching their lips, nose, or eyes.
Here Are The Facts
There is a woeful lack of data about novel coronavirus simply because it has just now emerged and not enough studies have been done to firmly identify all factors related to it.
As a result, this data is based on currently available evidence and the interpretation of legitimate and credible experts, agencies, and organizations. A lot is subject to change over time. But for now, here are the basics.
According to Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, coronavirus could potentially be transmitted by contaminated objects. “This is a sticky virus,” he said. “The structure of the coronavirus’ protective envelope helps it bond tightly to certain surfaces: skin in particular, as well as fabric and wood, but also plastic and steel.”
However, the guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) is that “The likelihood of an infected person contaminating commercial goods is low, and the risk of catching the virus that causes COVID-19 from a package that has been moved, traveled, and exposed to different conditions and temperature is also low.”
On the other hand, according to David Cennimo, M.D., an infectious disease expert and assistant professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, “There is a theoretical risk of transmission on surfaces, and that includes packaging.”
Researchers from Hong Kong University put droplets with coronavirus onto various surfaces. Their results found no infectious virus left on paper after three hours. But alarmingly, a significant level could be detected on the outer layer of a surgical mask after seven days. (Source.)
It’s a mixed bag of evidence and opinions about packaging in general. There are also a lot of caveats usually driven by “at this point in time.”
Research published in The New England Journal of Medicine has found that coronavirus can live on surfaces for days. Based on their study, it can live on plastic for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for 24 hours.
As Scott Gottlieb, former commission of the FDA, said, “This is a sticky virus.” Given that analysis, it stands to reason that precautions are wise when it comes to anything you bring home from the store.
Precautions While Shopping
Here are some common-sense precautions:
- When asked if you want paper or plastic at the checkout counter, always ask for paper. Coronavirus lives up to 3 days on plastic and is reported to last only 3 hours on paper.
- If you have the option to do self-checkout, do it. The fewer people handling your products, the better.
- Don’t pay with cash. Your change is just another surface to be concerned about.
- When paying with plastic, remember to sanitize when you leave the store and before you drive home. The touch keypad is a hot spot for vector transmission.
- Don’t save the empty paper bags after you unload. Throw them into your recycling bin.
How To Disinfect Your Groceries
Here’s the process I use:
- Bring all of your groceries inside and set them on the counter.
- Retrace your steps and disinfect anything you touched (door handles, light switches, trunk lid, etc).
- Remove groceries from the bags one at a time, and set them on a different surface (one that is disinfected).
- As you remove them, wipe them down with disinfectant wipes or spray them with disinfectant spray.
- Gather up and throw away the grocery bags.
- Wash your hands thoroughly for 20 seconds.
As you do all of this, be very careful not to touch your face. This is the part that gets people in trouble. As long as you don’t touch your face, you’re very unlikely to contract the virus. Unfortunately, most people touch their faces as often as 100 times a day without realizing it.
I recommend wearing a facemask when you’re out and while you’re unloading groceries. The CDC says they aren’t necessary, but they will keep you from accidentally touching your face.
Masks are hard to come by these days, but some vendors are still selling them.
What About Fruits and Veggies?
The recommendation for sanitizing produce is to run it under a steady stream of water until it is thoroughly rinsed.
If you want to go beyond sanitizing to disinfecting, Harold McGee the author of the book On Food and Cooking says:
“Soapy water and commercial produce washes are more effective than water alone. Washing can reduce microbial populations a hundredfold, but it’s impossible to eliminate all microbes from uncooked lettuce and other produce. Raw salads are not advised for people who are especially vulnerable.”
Can I Use Vinegar?
Vinegar has often been touted as a way to wash and disinfect produce, especially leafy vegetables. The acetic acid has been used for decades as a common, household disinfectant.
However, According to the CDC and NSF (a public health and safety organization),
“Vinegar should not be used to disinfect or sanitize. Vinegar is not registered with the EPA as a disinfectant and is ineffective against most bacteria and viruses – it does not kill the flu or coronavirus.”
Perhaps the best advice is to just buy varieties of produce that have a skin you can peel (like bananas, oranges, root vegetables, mangoes or avocados) or choose vegetables that you will cook. But even then, wash them thoroughly in water.
Disinfecting Cans, Bottles, and Packages
According to the EPA, “Coronaviruses are enveloped viruses, meaning they are one of the easiest types of viruses to kill with the appropriate disinfectant product.”
If you want to play it safe, wipe down the packages with a disinfectant wipe or a washcloth moistened with a disinfectant. And as always, wash your hands for twenty seconds when you’re done.
These are the disinfectants recommended by the EPA:
- Clorox Disinfecting Wipes
- Clorox Clean-Up Cleaner + Bleach
- Lysol Disinfectant Spray
- Lysol Multi-Purpose Cleaner with Bleach
- Lysol Multi-Purpose Cleaner with Hydrogen Peroxide
- Purell Multi-Surface Disinfectant Spray
- Microban 24 Hour Multi-Purpose Cleaner
* While not specifically tested on the virus that causes COVID-19 just yet, they have been proven effective on similar or harder-to-kill viruses.
Some people may feel that disinfecting every package they bring home from the store is a ridiculous overreaction. If that’s how you feel, don’t do it.
But if you or someone in the house is part of the at-risk population, you might want to think twice. And at least for a while, play it safe.
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