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Germ Warfare

Everything in life these days seems to be life threatening. And while the big issues like crime and nuclear war pose the greatest danger to our health and safety, it's the smaller things in life we've become ultra fearful of.

"I'm always spraying and wiping," says Cathy Smith Wong. "Just every day, you know, I clean up the kitchen. I spray, I wipe, I disinfect the toilet seats with Pine Sol and different antibacterial products."

Cathy Smith-Wong lives in fear. She thinks her house is practically a toxic dump. So every day, she spends hours rubbing and scrubbing and dusting. Germs and bacteria are Cathy's enemies. But she has allies: dozens of bacteria-fighting products.

"This is a multipurpose antibacterial cleaner," says Cathy, pointing to one of many germ-fighting products in her garage. "This is the refill for the soap dispenser, the antibacterial soap, this is antibacterial for the toilet bowl, and this is Purell."

Every week, Cathy spends a hefty sum stocking up on anti-bacterial lotions, sprays, and soaps that she believes keep her safe from infection and disease.

"We're afraid of almost anything you can name," says Barry Glassner, a sociologist who studies fear. "Some companies have figured out that there is a big market here of people who are just terrified of germs all over the place. And so what they've done is very cleverly come up with products that tap right into that fear, that tell people, 'Spend a few bucks, and you won't be afraid anymore.' "

American consumers are spending big bucks on bacteria-busting products. In fact, seven out of ten shoppers buy anti-bacterials -- everything from toys and toothbrushes to cutting boards and cat litter. What's ironic is that we now live longer, healthier lives. So maybe we're battling an enemy even more potent than germs.

"We hear about global warming, we hear about all kinds of lakes being too polluted that they can't function properly anymore," says Glassner. "We've been hearing this for a long time now. But we've also been hearing that there's really not much that we as individuals can do about it. So we're going to protect right at home at the immediate boundary. 'Not gonna let anything get in my skin or in my mouth that I'm not really in control of. "

To stay in control, Cathy Smith-Wong avoids contact with anything someone else may have touched: door handles, automated teller machines, money, even china and silverware. At an eatery, she asks the waiter, "Oh, can I have a plastic fork please?"

As for public telephones, "I try not to use them," she says. And when she does, she keeps a good distance between her mouth and the handset.

She scrubs her food. She even takes special precautions when she goes to the movies. "I have to bring a hand towel to put over the chair because I don't like my hair touching the seat where everybody else has been."

And what about New York City? t's home to millions. Grime and soot cover everything. This place must be teeming with germs. But should one feel anxious and paranoid? New York Hospital's Dr. Jonathan Jacobs, an expert in infectious disease, gives us some straight talk.

"People don't understand that bacteria are part of our environment, our everyday environment," Jacobs says. "They're on every surface, they're on our bodies, they're in our bodies. They do things to help us in many cases. And so, most of the bacteria we come into contact with do absolutely nothing to hurt us whatsoever."

In fact, Dr. Jacobs maintains that humans have survived for millennia with germs and without anti-bacterial products.

"I think people are often wasting their money on these products," Jacobs says. "Because, it turns out that simply washing your hands in soap and water is as effective as using a specifically anti-bacterial product. You get the same outcome for a lot less expense."

Smart marketing continues to drive the sales of trendy anti-bacterials, and people like Cathy Smith-Wong believe these products still are the best defense in a world of germs and bacteria. Sociologist Barry Glassner feels that, eventually, people just replace one fear with another.

"This is going to be a temporary phase," he says. "At first you get a big bang, right? You buy the product. You feel better. You might be able to get two rounds out of that. Now it's new and improved. So you buy the new and improved one. But after a while, you notice that you're still scared of all the things you're scared about, because it's not really about germs anyway."

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