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Are You Concerned about Coffee Cup Contamination?

Q. Are others concerned like I am when a barista touches the top of my coffee cup? When this happened recently I complained and walked away in frustration. I’m not trying to be difficult, but I don’t want anyone else’s cold, flu or whatever.

A. You would be astonished at how controversial this question is. Although we (and many others) share your concern about coffee cup hygiene, a lot of people get quite annoyed. Here are just a few examples:

“The answer is simple. 

“Bring your own cup. Wash your telephone, clean your keyboard, douse yourself from head to toe with antiseptic if that makes you feel sterile. How about learning to cook your own meal in your own sanitized kitchen?

“I get tired of this generation whining, expecting other people to look out for their health. Quit having sex. It will contaminate you with other people’s fluid.

“Grow up. Take care of your own health.” L.W.

“This is much ado about nothing. ‘Germs’ are everywhere and our society has become a bunch of germaphobes because the cleaning industry has decided they could cash in on it. Hand sanitizer has become our worst nightmare. We have this amazing thing called an immune system and it would do it’s job if people would let it and use a bit of common sense.

“If coffee lids are such a hazard, then so is everything else you come in contact with through the day. Think about where your hands have been and what all you touch!

“Watch that steering wheel in your car. Your car keys. Your car door. The radio knob. Your children! How about the gas pumps? Oh the list could go on and on! I might be more concerned about what is in the water being used to make the coffee than I would be the lid of the cup.” Jane

“Writer Pearl Buck grew up in China. Her parents warned her never to eat food sold by street vendors. Like most children she ignored their advice and later attributed her robust health to having been exposed to lots of challenging bacteria and dirt early on. There are times to be concerned (hospital staph infections, compromised immune systems), but mostly we are better off worrying less and giving our immune systems something to do.” P. H.

“This is an interesting the argument between the sterile vs. the touch the germs crowd.

“I am in the touch the germs group – I grew up in 1940-1950 crawling around, picking up bugs, digging earthworms (from a chicken manure pile).

“At age 76 I am doing well. I don’t get infections when my dog accidentally nips my hand to get the Frisbee. I do wash a bleeding cut with soap and water, put on some Polysporin and a bandage for a day or three.” Paul

“Make your own coffee at home. Save (a lot) of money and you do not have these concerns about viruses and hand washing.” R.R.

“And so? Do not: breathe — touch anything — eat, and so on and so on. The concern here seems ridiculous. Anything we do in life has risk. So why are coffee lids any different than any other object?” Steve

Then there is the other side:

“Having worked in food service, I recognize the poor hygiene practices in restaurant staff. So many food servers and handlers have not been trained to protect the food and their customers. Simple recognition of cross contamination from one customer to another, transferred by staff, is essential in food service training.

“I suppose the turnover in staff makes training difficult, but very necessary. Gloves cross contaminate just as well as hands unless changed as often as hand washing would be needed. Gloves only protect the wearer from contaminating in the case of open cuts or scrapes.

“To simplify, don’t touch anything clean after touching anything questionable unless you wash hands thoroughly or change gloves, keeping in mind you can contaminate fresh gloves with dirty hands.” Vee

“I think the point is – the passing of germs via coffee cups or lids or glasses in a restaurant is unnecessary. If only servers were trained to avoid touching the tops of drinking vessels this discussion would not be necessary. Would anyone want to put the servers fingers in their mouths?

“I’ve started asking servers now for a clean cup if I see them touch the top.” C.B.

What often concerns us the most is the fact that the very person who takes your money and gives you change fills your coffee cup after grasping the lip of the cup. Then he flattens the lid with the same hand that has been handling money.

How dirty is money? A study just published in BMC Research Notes (Jan 8, 2014) reveals that 96.6% of bank notes from the Cameroon (in sub-Saharan Africa) were contaminated with bacteria and other organisms.

OK, we can hear you now. That’s Africa, where sanitary conditions might not be so great. What about European banknotes? Scientists from Oxford University tested Euros and found an average of 26,000 bacteria on a typical paper bank note.

U.S. researchers have also found substantial bacterial contamination of currency. Here are their conclusions published in the Southern Medical Journal:

 “One-dollar bills were collected from the general community in western Ohio to survey for bacterial contamination. Pathogenic or potentially pathogenic organisms were isolated from 94% of the bills. These results suggest a high rate of bacterial contamination of one-dollar bills.”


We are constantly told to wash our hands to avoid catching colds and influenza. Here is what the CDC says:

“Handwashing is easy to do and it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of many types of infection and illness in all settings–from your home and workplace to child care facilities and hospitals. Clean hands can stop germs from spreading from one person to another and throughout an entire community.”

If we believe that, then presumably we would also care how our barista handles our coffee cup.

One reader offered the following solution: “When a server at any restaurant handles my food and my money, I ask him to please put on gloves and then handle my food, the re-ordered food, that is.”

Where do you stand on the coffee cup question? Do you think this is all a tempest in a coffee cup? Share your thoughts below in the comment section.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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