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What Is Bacterial Contamination?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 19 April 2014
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Bacterial contamination is a situation which occurs when bacteria end up in a location where they are not supposed to be. It is often used to refer to contamination of food by bacteria which can cause disease, but can also occur in other settings. This situation is not desirable, because it can pose a health threat and cause other problems. As a result, steps are taken to avoid contamination in settings where it can become an issue.

In the case of food, bacterial contamination can happen at many steps along the supply chain from producer to dinner table. Bacteria can be present in the water and soil, and ride along with crops. They can also be transferred from people who handle the food, or introduced to food via dirty equipment, ranging from fouled packaging equipment to dirty pans in a restaurant. Contamination with bacteria at home often occurs as a result of leaving food out on the counter, not keeping food cold, or failing to wash hands before handling food. Once in the food, the bacteria can multiply, making the leap to a human host when someone consumes the food.

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Bacterial contamination can also be a problem in medical clinics, operating rooms, and other health care settings. The bacteria can be transferred from patients or health care providers, and they may end up on surgical instruments, medical equipment, door knobs, and numerous other sites. In health care settings, this is an especially big issue because sick people are at risk of becoming more sick if they are exposed to harmful bacteria.

In scientific research, bacterial contamination of specimens can be an issue, as can contamination of specimens taken for analysis by a pathologist. The presence of unwanted bacteria can foul an experiment, throw off pathology results, or simply confuse a researcher. Bacteria spread readily through labs via a variety of surfaces, including equipment which is not properly sterilized, dirty hands, and through ventilation systems.

Prevention of bacterial contamination can be challenging. Keeping spaces clean and observing proper handling procedure is a big part of prevention. Simple steps like washing hands, dipping shoes in an antibacterial bath after exiting a patient's room, and wearing gloves to handle specimens can cut down a great deal on the risk of passing bacteria from one place to another. It is also important to conduct regular testing to check for bacterial contamination so that it can be identified before it makes someone sick or causes problems with an experiment or test.

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Discuss this Article

candyquilt
Post 5

@ysmina-- That's a great point! I had never thought of that before either.

A friend of mine actually got sick from smoking hookah at a hookah bar. She went to the doctor and they found a bacteria that settles in the stomach and causes digestive problems. She had to take huge amounts of antibiotics to get rid of it.

My friend thinks that it is from the hookah. Even though each customer uses a fresh mouth piece, so many people inhale from the same hookah in one day. And if they don't clean it, can you imagine the bacteria that could grow in there!

It's very scary. I guess we need to be careful about sharing stuff too.

ysmina
Post 4

I think something else to note is that bacterial contamination could be present in water.

Most people, if they get sick, assume that it is from something they ate. If you drink tap water, there could be a problem with the water as well. I personally buy bottled water for drinking. For cooking, tea and coffee though, I use boiled tap water. Boiling is a great way to sterilize water before you drink it.

turquoise
Post 3

@crispety-- I have had food poisoning a couple of times as well. Usually it is from eating out but it has happened from food at home.

If I'm at a restaurant where I'm not to sure about the hygiene, either I don't eat there, or I don't order raw veggies and salads. The reason is that if the lettuce and veggies are not washed well, there could be remnants of soil and fertilizer on it which means bacterial contamination. At home, I always soak my veggies in water with vinegar because vinegar kills the bacteria.

I also agree with you about the temperature of food. I believe the rule is that you are only supposed to heat something once. So if I take out food from the fridge at home and heat it in the microwave, I have to finish it or throw it away. Re-cooling and re-heating helps the bacteria multiply.

When I'm careful about these points, I don't get sick.

sunshine31
Post 2

@crispety - That is a good tip. I wanted to say that hospitals sometimes have problems with bacterial contamination too. They say that there have been studies that they have found some bacteria on some of the phones and devices on the beds that alert the nurses that you need help. This makes sense because a lot of people use those.

Sometimes the contamination in hospitals occurs before reaching the hospital. I read that there was a case in Alabama in which some medication that was delivered to the hospital and it was already contaminated and made a number of people really sick and actually killed eight people.

Sometimes in the manufacturing process there could be problems with bacterial contamination that unfortunately is not caught until it is too late.

Crispety
Post 1

I know that a few months back I developed food poisoning after eating at a restaurant and I am sure that it was due to bacterial contamination. It could easily been a situation where someone left the raw chicken out too long or worse touched the raw chicken and then handled the raw meat without washing their hands.

I am paranoid about this when I cook and I am constantly washing my hands and using brand new utensils when stirring by food so that I don't develop a situation where bacterial contamination can occur.

I also wanted to add that the temperature of food served to you is also an indication that it could be contaminated with bacteria. If you are served a lukewarm burger at a fast food restaurant, I would send it back because that means it was sitting out for a long time and it has a higher chance of developing bacteria. What I usually do is ask for a condiment to be removed like pickles or mustard so that my burger has to be served fresh.

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