Jason Tetro didn’t always love germs.
“I was a sickly child,” says Tetro, of his early years in rural Manitoba and Ottawa. “I was always at the doctor’s office for some problem. I, unfortunately, was the medicated kid with the antibiotics and other issues.”
But Tetro, 44, got over it, and then some. He long ago began cultivating a passion, albeit guarded, for the microbes that teem in, on and around us in countless numbers.
It’s an infectious ardour, one that’s helped him emerge as a popular, go-to media source across Canada for all things bacterial and viral.
Tetro’s second book on microbes, The Germ Files, will be released in February. The book is a lighthearted look at the many ways humans interact with microbes and the critical role they play in our daily lives.
He also appears frequently on CBC Radio and pens online, newspaper and academic journal articles — promoting himself proudly as “The Germ Guy.”
His transition from phobia to fascination where microbes are concerned came like an epiphany as he approached his 17th birthday and entered University of Ottawa microbiologist Donn Kushner’s laboratory as a high school intern.
“He told me that the idea of being at war with microbes is not how we should be,” Tetro recalls of his late mentor. “Since then, almost 30 years now, I’ve really come to understand (that) perspective and as a result learned that … we are in a marriage with microbes (and) have to give them an appreciation, respect and a commitment to working together to improve our own lives.”
Microbial admiration is a consistent theme of Tetro’s chatterbox proselytizing. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that the vast majority of the microscopic creatures are either benign or beneficial to our health and environment.
The microbes that populate the human gut, for example, are symbiotically integral to our immune systems and digestion, says Tetro, whose current, vigorous health he attributes to self-manipulations of his intestinal biome. Likewise, microbes in the soil are essential to its ability to support plant life.
“Only about 1 per cent of the microbes that are out there have any risk to our health,” he says.
Still, Tetro knows there are microbes in need of some “tough love” — pathogens that can sicken or kill us in any number of fevered ways.
And the place to find these in greater concentrations than almost anywhere else in this city is on the subway, which Tetro was eager to hop onto for a recent interview.
“We’re going to be in a pretty germy place,” he said gleefully from the northbound Bloor-Yonge platform, adding that a subway car would be rivalled only by a crowded Rogers Centre or ACC for pathogen populations in Toronto. “It all comes down to high density of people and a great amount of traffic,” he says. “If there’s one person who happens to be shedding a flu or a cold virus, anyone within six feet of that person, if they cough or hack, could become infected.”
Germs will also linger on poles and hanging straps for several hours, says Tetro, as he douses his own hands with bottled sanitizer after grabbing onto each in turn.
“When you’re dealing with something like rush hour, if someone happens to have a wet hand full of bodily fluids and they put that on a pole, that’s definitely going to present a risk to somebody else.”
And speaking of hands, Tetro unabashedly asks to inspect the palms of a pair of young female riders, which they dutifully extend after he introduces himself with his “Germ Guy” moniker. He correctly concludes that one of them, nursing student Danielle Goldberg, is in the health-care field by the scrubbed cleanliness of her proffered appendages.
Tetro’s microbiological expertise comes from an undergraduate degree in the subject from the University of Guelph, and from 15 years working in the field at the University of Ottawa.
There, he was a research associate to prominent microbiologist Syed Sattar, who recalls his former employee as a “vital” contributor to his academic work.
“Overall, he is a very likable individual with a sharp mind,” Sattar, now an emeritus professor at the school, said in an email interview. “He is certainly a gifted communicator with strong writing and speaking skills and an easy way with people.”
Tetro moved to Toronto — where he still conducts research on top of his communications work — in 2013, following his partner Anastassia Voronova, who took a position as a post-doctoral stem cell scientist at the Hospital for Sick Children.
But when it comes to the other love of his life, he warns that some microbes that often linger on common objects, you might love less than others.
Few things make Jason Tetro go “yuck.” But there are things many of us use every day that he’ll frequently take a good cleanser to. Here are some common items that Tetro says can be safe harbours for potentially harmful pathogens.
• Computer keyboards
At home or in the office, they spell microbial contamination. Rarely cleaned except by the most fastidious operators, they can form bacteria-friendly environments known as biofilms on their qwerty surfaces. While most of these microbes will be harmless, there may well be some fecal-based pathogens lurking among the letters. (Single-user keyboards will likely be cleaner.)
Strategy: An antiseptic wipe every few weeks will make them all safer.
• Mobile devices
Like keyboards, cellphones and tablets can be reservoirs for germs — transferred from fingers or, for phones, from the mouth. Typically concentrations won’t be dangerous to healthy users, but those with compromised immune systems could be at risk. The devices’ mobility is also an infectious factor, as they can be carried to hospitals and kitchens, where their microbes can be spread to medical equipment and food.
Strategy: Clean them frequently with an antiseptic wipe.
• Coffee makers
Don’t let their bubbling, percolating sounds seduce you. The water reservoirs for these java dispensers can be a “haven for microbes,” Tetro says. The coffee will be safe as the boiling water running through the grinds will kill any bacteria. But the sitting reservoirs can form teeming bacterial biofilms that can contaminate the surrounding air.
Strategy: Run a water and vinegar solution through the system now and then.
No surprise that the places you clean everything else could harbour residual germs. Indeed, Tetro says, sinks are typically “the most contaminated environment in any home or office.” Gunk-smeared sinks are especially welcoming to biofilm formations. The good news, Tetro says, is that “you would have to lick the basin and taps to risk getting sick.”
Strategy: Use a disinfectant once a month and more often if the sink is used to clean meat or dirty-bummed babies.
• Makeup and grooming products
Hairbrushes are “hotbeds” for fungi, some of which are responsible for athlete’s foot and dandruff.
Strategy: Wash them frequently.
Mascara applicators can be contaminated with a variety of bacteria, including those that cause red eye and conjunctivitis.
Strategy: Change them every six months to lower risk.
Lipstick can host a variety of pathogens on its sticky surface from both the environment and the mouth.
Strategy: Never share.
Makeup contaminations can lead to rashes.
Strategy: Again, never share, and clean applicator brushes often.