News & Politics » Straight Dope

The Straight Dope

by

comment

I have a question. When a prisoner is put to death by lethal injection, does he or she still get their arm cleaned with an alcohol swab? --Mark Alonso, 101st Airborne Division

Does make you wonder. Here they are about to snuff the guy, and they're worried he might get infected with germs? But according to a spokesman for the Texas Department of Corrections, which has carried out many executions by lethal injection, the technician (it's never a doctor) is in fact supposed to swab the prisoner's arm first. One presumes other states employing this method do likewise.

There are several reasons for this. Apart from its usefulness as an antiseptic, alcohol causes blood vessels to rise to the surface, making it easier to insert the needle. More important, there's a chance the prisoner's sentence might be delayed or commuted at the last minute.

It's happened before. In October 1983 condemned murderer James Autry was strapped to a gurney for an hour in a Texas prison with saline solution dripping into his arm. (He was awake the whole time, incidentally.) At about the time he was scheduled to die he was told he had received a stay of execution. He was returned to his cell and not executed until the following March. Whatever you think of the death penalty, you wouldn't want the guy to die of sheer carelessness.

Which brings us to what I think is the real reason for swabbing the arm: it's part of the elaborate ritual that allows executioners to think of themselves as professionals doing a job rather than butchers. Interviews with members of execution teams reveal they place great stock in proper procedure. We may be certain that if the prisoner were to choke on a chicken bone during his last meal, the authorities would spare no effort to save his life an hour prior to ending it. Nazi death camp guards observed no such niceties. Thus do we persuade ourselves that we are better than they.

When I was a little girl my mother showed me how to arrange toilet paper on public toilet seats because of the danger of becoming infected with horrible diseases. My husband scoffs at this. He claims "sanitizing" toilet seats is pointless because nothing could be transmitted by sitting on them. Who's right? --Carlotta Anderson, Glen Echo, Maryland

Neither of you. There are any number of diseases that can be transmitted by toilet seats--hepatitis A, salmonella poisoning, and polio, among others. But trying to prevent this by lining the toilet seat with tissue is stupid and may even increase the risk of infection.

Doctors regard the area between the belly button and the knees as a jungle of potentially dangerous "flora," most of which originate in the colon, or big intestine. A typical colon hosts 400 different types of bacteria that account for one-third the dry weight of feces.

Once the bacteria get outside the body, there are many warm nooks and crannies on your person where they can survive. Even if the person who used the toilet before you had fastidious habits, bacteria can wind up on the toilet seat due to spray caused by flushing. One study found colonic bacteria on 7 percent of seats.

But you don't absorb these bacteria directly through your skin, as many people, including your mother, seem to think. They pass from feces to hands to mouth. The more often your hands get close to the toilet seat, the greater the chance of picking up a bug. That's why it's foolish to grub around placing tissue on the seat.

The smart thing to do is wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water afterward. Washing doesn't necessarily kill the bacteria, but the soap does get rid of the skin oils to which the bacteria stick. A lot of people think washing your hands is just a social nicety, like using deodorant. But it's the one antigerm measure that's reasonably likely to work.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Add a comment