A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York. The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

By Nina Pajak

Long before I had a child, I enjoyed observing the Upper West Side mothers who used to surround me. Often, a couple of them would be chatting on the sidewalk while their young children played just a few feet away. Inevitably, one or both of the kids would wind up doing something I considered to be hideously disgusting, like licking the side of a bus stop, rolling around on the ground, or picking a piece of expectorated gum from the side of a building.

The mothers would glance over with a look of dismay, but would barely make a move. “Oh, no. Stop,” they would say with no urgency, their eyes and tone of voice deadened by utter defeat. They could scarcely muster the energy even to pretend they were remotely concerned, let alone get upset enough to physically stop the repulsive act. I could never be that way, I would think to myself as I slathered my hands with my trusty antibacterial and descended into the subway, hands in the air as though I’d just scrubbed in for surgery. Never.

Flash forward a few years, and I am already that resigned mother who sighs and half-heartedly swats at the plastic dog bone upon which her daughter has decided to gnaw. Sure, at first I was the germ police, sterilizing everything that fell on the floor, washing every toy touched by another person’s child. But between a constantly shedding dog and a baby determined to find the most disgusting thing on earth and lick it, I realized how futile my efforts were becoming. Now, I simply pick hairs off pacifiers before giving them back to her. The antibacterial gel on which I so heavily relied in her infancy is mainly reserved for when I get poop on my finger during a particularly athletic diaper change. The five-second rule is most certainly observed in this household. Where I was once obsessively concerned with de-bugging myself and my immediate environs, I’m now an outspoken proponent of “building immunity,” which I proselytize with the same fervor that someone else might feel about “building character.” Essentially, it is a convenient euphemism for, “I give up, she’ll live.”

Well, good news! More research has been done on the ever-popular five-second rule, and the nice biology students at Aston University’s School of Life and Health Sciences in the UK have found that there is, indeed, less bacteria found on fallen food that is retrieved after a few seconds versus food that has remained down for longer. Usually. Mostly. It depends.

The study found that food picks up the least bacteria if it lands on carpet, and the most from surfaces like laminate or tile. Likewise, the moister (ew) the morsel, the more germies it is likely to find. And of course, the researchers warn that the safety of eating food from the floor is really dependent on which bacteria are lurking beneath your feet. In other words, use your judgment. If it falls in your house or a similarly semi-private, clean(ish) space where you’re reasonably certain there’s no ringworm or ebola, fair game. If it falls in the airport, a public restroom, or a subway car, it’s probably best to cut your losses and let that bite go uneaten (or stuff the pacifier in the “yucky yucky, don’t touch” pocket of your diaper bag. Yes, even as you watch hopelessly as your child presses her open mouth against the train windowpane or touches the sanitary napkin disposal box and then shoves her thumb in her mouth before you can even reach for the wipes. Life is messy. Kids are gross. All we can do is our best.

Nina Pajak is a writer living with her husband, daughter and dog in Queens. Connect with Nina on Twitter!

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