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The Three-Second Rule

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How safe is it?

kid dropping cookie

Momlogic's Vivian: My kids have done it. Your kids have done it. A chocolate chip cookie or some other irresistible morsel of tasty goodness slips out of their grasp and onto the ground, and the lure of snatching it up again and shoving it in one's mouth like it never happened sure is powerful.

But should we let our kids do this? After all, how many germs can jump on a single cookie in three seconds?

Dr. Philip M. Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs: Observations and Lessons from a Microbe Hunter, and director of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology at the New York University Langone Medical Center, hereby explains why there is no such thing as a "three-second rule."

"The whole world is bathed in germs, whether it's people, their byproducts like feces or sputum, or the earth. Germs were here before people, and they'll be here after people," says Dr. Tierno. "Having said that, if someone were to vomit in front of you, or if you should see dog feces on the ground, or if you should see someone urinating or expectorating on the ground and your food drops anywhere near that, would you eat it? Of course not! The same concept applies when you drop food on the ground. When you walk where all those things have been outside, you bring them onto your carpeting and onto your floors. You may have stepped on a spot where someone once vomited, and your shoes can pick up portions of the Norovirus, also known as the diarrhea/vomit virus. If you drop food on that, it picks it up. Even if you remove your shoes, your feet hold a repository of germs that can be transmitted onto foodstuffs."

Even in three seconds?

"It's impossible to quantify how many germs could adhere to a cookie in three seconds. It's one of the vagaries of life. But in three seconds, that cookie could contain the Norovirus or other pathogens that can make you really, really sick," says Dr. Tierno.

Yikes! Even if you just washed the floor?

Dr. Tierno says there's no reprieve in this scenario, unless you are sterilizing your floor. Which you aren't. "Even if you wipe your floor with Clorox, it's exposed to air, and by definition isn't sterile," he adds.

So the next time your kid drops food on the floor, by all means, throw it away and replace it if you can. But even with all these germs infesting your existence, Dr. Tierno says there's no need to become a germaphobe -- just be cautious and teach your kids how to wash their hands.

"You should be aware of germs and how to interfere or break their transmission of those pathogenic types. Of 60,000 types of germs, only 1-2% are pathogenic," he says.


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42 comments so far | Post a comment now
Anonymous January 25, 2010, 4:53 AM

First off, I thought it was the 5 second rule and secondly, if germs are so bad on the floor even after you clean it wouldn’t the same apply to your kitchen countertops or your dishes? What about your hands? This article makes me not what to touch my food.

Charlotte January 25, 2010, 7:39 AM

Dear lord, talk about paranoid. I still eat things I’ve dropped on the floor, the few times it still happens. Germs are a part of life, so what if you expose yourself to a few every now and again. If you try to live “germ-free” you’re immune system will become weak, and when you get sick you will get REALLY sick. I’m not saying roll in vomit or anything, don’t be stupid. Let your kids get sick once in a while, they’ll be better off in the long run.

Pamala January 25, 2010, 7:39 AM

Well exactly. What about our carpets that we let our little ones crawl on? Or the hardwood floors? Or the dirt chips they sit in at the park or the sand they play in at school? OMG What are we going to do! So many germs, no way to protect them!

I don’t know, why don’t we just stop being so darn paranoid and allow our kids to be kids? And hey why don’t we actually let them build immunities like they should. And people wonder why our children are sicker than ever. It’s because people don’t let their children get dirty anymore.

Angela January 25, 2010, 8:11 AM

Yes our floors have germs on them. So do plates, utensils, tabletops, and kids hands. I don’t like my son to get sick and take reasonable precautions, but I also know that it’s just part of growing up. After all, kids who don’t get exposed to germs because their moms keep them in hyperclean environments often wind up with allergies or autoimmune disorders because your immune system needs exposure to germs to develop properly.

Anonymous January 25, 2010, 5:36 PM

I was really annoyed by this post until I read the comments. Way to be sensible, people. It may be the first time this has ever happened on the internet… There is something discomforting when the average Joe and George Carlin (R.I.P.) have a more rational view of practical microbiology than Dr. Tierno.

Anne January 26, 2010, 4:10 AM

Another great way to spread a little paranoia. Sad thing, we all came and read this with interest. It told us nothing, really. It was biased and unrealistic. You say germ like it’s a bad thing. What about all of the good germs?

Go ahead and you live in a bubble. The rest of us have to reside in the real world - germs and all.

Vicki January 26, 2010, 4:32 AM

The three second, the five second, the ten second rule, whatever you want to call it, was a joke. Back in the 70’s we made it up to cover our wanting to eat that piece of candy that dropped to the floor. It is not a “real” rule, it is a joke. I cannot believe that people have translated the joke into reality. And there is a continued conflict of it. Of course there are germs on the floors no matter how long a piece of food stays on it. It is up to the individual to determine if they want to take the risk of eating it and enjoy the aftermath of the contents of the germs that come with it. Enjoy!!

Jeff Prager January 26, 2010, 7:32 AM

Obviously MomLogic isn’t always terribly logical. By creating a germ-free environment we’ve developed children that are more easily susceptible to every disease known. Life’s full of risks. Food dropped on the floor shouldn’t be wasted. People are starving everywhere. Would they eat it? I would too.

Anonymous January 26, 2010, 9:08 AM

It has been proven that children who have dogs have less allergies, wanna know why….., because they have been exposed to all the slobber, hair and germs that lovable hairy old dogs have to offer and the childrens little bodies build healthy immune systems and anti-bodies.
did you ever notice the nieghbor kid who was never dressed appropriatly was never sick, but we on the other hand who dressed them from head to toe on top and underneath, fed them fruit and vitamins etc.etc, but it is our children who end up with the flu!
I agree there are germs every where and so they were since the beggining of time, we have learned much, for the most part exposure helps us to remain resistant. Germaphobics set themselves up to complete a self-fufilling prophecy. GO PLAY AND WASH YOUR HANDS

Robert January 26, 2010, 9:18 AM

Excellent, surprisingly rational commentary. I’ve been reading the rash of articles in the past few months on the invalidity of the five-second rule (living in NYC, I’m conscious that every single inch of sidewalk has been coated in dogsh** at one time or another, and we’re not great about taking our shoes off). But what I’ve wondered - if pathogenic germs jump so willingly from the ground to the cookie, wouldn’t they jump just as willingly from the cookie to our hands? And yet nowhere in these reports have I seen recommendations to specifically wash our hands after tossing the dropped cookies or candies. Maybe people do out of a matter of course, but I don’t think so.
Me, I’ll eat the cookie (off the kitchen floor), not NYC sidewalks LOL), and I’ll probably let my kid eat it too.

mel January 26, 2010, 11:40 AM

well, who made it up sure is workin in our society, but look @ those kids who would die, for that cookie that dropped on the floor…..or it would save their life, think of those less fortunate then base your opinion on that….

Kristen January 26, 2010, 12:38 PM

This article is what really bugs me about today’s ‘germophobe’ society. I’m sorry but if I threw away everything my toddler dropped on the floor I would go insane and he’d never eat! And, I’m pretty sure I saw a Mythbusters episode regarding this 3, 5, 10 second rule. I don’t think it was as bad as many people thought. And even if it is, like others have said, kids need to be exposed to germs so their immune system develops properly. Do I believe in having ‘Chicken Pox Parties’? No. But I’m not going to chase my kid around all day wiping him down with antibacterial wipes or whatever. Get real.

lori cooper January 26, 2010, 1:24 PM

i still do it. germs r everywhere. i used to work in a spaghetti sauce factory. if u knew what was in there u would not want to eat it. even after u wash your hands and then touch the doorknob you will be full of germs again. i saw this lady in the grocery store who had a bottle of handsanitizer with her. everytime she picked up something and put it in her cart she used it. . this has nothing to do with food, but my son takes really expensive medicine it is a lifesaver. if 1 falls on the floor i make him take it, without it he would die,i would rather he had a few germs

deb January 26, 2010, 6:13 PM

There’s no avoiding germs, regardless of whether you eat something off the floor or not. if someone was truly worrried about eating something w/germs on it,we may not eat at all. Do you know for sure what did/did not happen to the food you are eating before it was packaged? My guess is no - chances are there are germs you wouldn’t choose to eat already on it, but why stop now, since by not giving this any thought before you’ve already consumed who knows haow many unwanted germs.

Debby January 26, 2010, 9:15 PM

Let’s not forget those shoe laces dragging through all that “gook” and then tieing them! :) Where does the germaphobia end.

Patti Bright January 27, 2010, 5:28 AM

It is my belief that the chemicals used to kill germs are more dangerous to our children than the germs. I would be more apt to throw away a cookie that landed on a floor that was just scrubbed with bleach & as a child I played in all kinds of dirt & was never sick.

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