Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Germs

Are all germs evil? Did we only discover germs thanks to microscopes? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Germs! Are they being pumped out via phone signals? Do they end up splattered on sneeze guards? Time to sneeze the hot snot of truth onto the plexiglass pane of your mind.

Lie #1: Germs Are Bad

#NotAllGerms. As much as we use the word germ to mean “pathogen” — and, yeah, pathogens are bad, that’s what pathogen means — there are other germs. The reproductive part of a cereal plant (like a rice or maize plant, not something silly like a Cap’n Crunch Bush) is called the germ, hence things like wheat germ. It’s also used to refer to any cell that ends up developing into a gamete — that is, sperm and egg cells. If you hate germs, you hate sperms! 

In the disease sense, yeah, they suck, but it’s not really a word you tend to see bandied about by scientists, as it covers so much stuff — bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and sometimes even good old-fashioned dirt — that it’s fairly unhelpful. Something like “pathogenic bacteria” is a lot more useful (the vast majority of bacteria are harmless or even beneficial to humans) in terms of actually accurately describing something in a non-garbage manner. 

Lie #2: 5G Phone Signals Can Be Used To Transmit Diseases

No they can’t. Whatever your uncle (or Woody Harrelson) keeps suggesting on Facebook, they really fucking can’t. There are a great many reasons why, but the main one is that they’re completely different things. Transmitting a virus over 5G is like emailing someone a sausage — you can’t goddamn do it, as they’re just different things. 5G operates using radio signals, while a virus is a physical object — a very small one, but still a physical object. That’s why antibacterial wipes exist, but there’s no such thing as, like, a sponge you use on your ears if you aren’t a fan of the songs playing on the radio.

You could build a “coronavirus transmitter,” of course, but it would have to pretty much be a big sprinkler with a bigger tank of viral material attached to it. It also, crucially, wouldn’t put out a phone signal. You’d need to build a 5G mast there as well, attaching your big gnarly sprinkler of nastiness to it, two things that would require very different materials, expertise and installation procedures. It would be abundantly clear to a phone mast engineer that what they were actually installing was a big stupid sprinkler dreamed up by a maniac, rather than an actual phone mast. (Again, think of it in terms of emails and sausages — if someone asks for help clearing out their email inbox, but then shows you a hot dog bun with ketchup and tries to get you to scrape it out, it’s clear to you from the get-go that something is awry.)

As an evil scheme to infect loads of people, pumping out coronavirus from phone masts would be completely useless — you’d end up infecting a really tight radius of land around the mast and not a lot else. Like, imagine putting a sprinkler on top of the Empire State Building as a plan to drown New York City. Even with a really big sprinkler, you’re going to leave the town pretty dry.

If you had the means to (a) get every phone network in the world on your side; (b) convince thousands of engineers, laborers and scientists to turn a blind eye to an international death-weapon; and (c) manufacture enormous quantities of what is currently the most feared substance on earth, there’d be easier ways to kill huge swathes of people. Other eccentric billionaire super-baddies would laugh at your stupid ass and face. Lex Luthor would give you a wedgie. Doctor Doom would steal your lunch.

You know what can spread diseases though? 

Spitting on goddamn phone engineers, something yahoos convinced of the 5G-coronavirus link have started doing. This week, in the U.K., an engineer got fucking coronavirus after a shit-for-brains conspiracy theorist spat in his face

What a total, total prick.

Lie #3: GermJermaine Is A Totally Okay Name

To most people, sure. It’s a totally okay name. To Jermaine Jackson, though, of Jackson Five fame, it’s THE BEST NAME IN THE WORLD. Jermaine Jackson really really likes his first name. His debut solo album is called Jermaine. His third album is called My Name Is Jermaine. His seventh album is once again called Jermaine, and his tenth is called Jermaine Jackson. His first child? Jermaine Jr. His third? Jaimy Jermaine. His seventh, and youngest? Jermajesty Jermaine Jackson, a truly pro-Jermaine name that cleverly brings kingliness into proceedings. 

(Also fun: Jermajesty’s mother, Jermaine’s second wife Alejandra, was previously in a relationship with Jermaine’s brother Randy and had two kids with him. Until their 2004 divorce, Genevieve and Steven were simultaneously Jermaine’s stepkids and his niece and nephew, and Jermajesty’s step-siblings and cousins. Step-siblings who are actual blood relatives — that’s what everyone wants, right?)

Lie #4: Scientists Know About Germs Because of Microscopes

As an idea, germs predate both microscopes and scientists. Germs are a concept people have been throwing about for 2,000 years, despite microscopes only being around for a fraction of that. Extraordinarily, in 36 B.C., Roman statesman Marcus Varro wrote about “minute creatures which cannot be seen by the eyes, which float in the air and enter the body through the mouth and nose and there cause serious diseases.” Other than the floating bit, that’s right on the money — not bad at all for a bunch of people we think of (wrongly) as barfing on each other all the time.

Two millennia of sitting around with our thumbs up our dirty asses later, we all got there, with 17th-century scientists developing vaguely decent microscopes and 19th-century scientists coming up with the germ theory of disease, which modern bacteriology and microbiology stem from, and which has saved billions of lives. 

Plus, without it, we wouldn’t have “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Nine Inch Nails style-parody “Germs,” which would be a shame.

Lie #5: Sneeze Guards Keep Salad Bars (and Cashiers’ Faces) Germ-Free

A bit, but not entirely. If you’re sneezing a lot, don’t go to the goddamn salad bar, you beast. That applies even more so if you’re short (and thus sneeze under the guard); clumsy (and thus touch more than you mean to); indecisive (and thus touch more than you end up taking); or useless (and thus sneeze into your hand then touch the tongs, or just generally smear your gross self everywhere, or worse). 

The sneeze guard was only invented in 1959, patented by a beloved Pittsburgh restaurateur called Johnny Garneau. Before that, if you were at a buffet and sneezed — and they had been popular in the U.S. for 20 years by that point — it just went into the food and everyone ate your snot. Sneezing from a distance wasn’t even Garneau’s main concern — it was people leaning in to smell the food and dribbling or sneezing all over it. 

Horrendous.

Garneau’s invention soon became legally mandatory in all 50 states in buffet/smorgasbord scenarios, and spread to other retail environments, and a shitload are being bought and installed in various workplaces as you read this, from mass supermarket rollouts to possible post-COVID office redesigns. Sneezes aren’t the big concern, of course, but it’s a catchy name.

Sneeze guards obviously do offer some protection but, like all safety equipment, are as effective as the people using them. Leaning over them, failing to clean them regularly or just doing the whole thing half-assed are all depressingly common. Ultimately, when it comes to protecting people from spreading illness, even the best-quality, best-situated piece of plastic is no match for staying the hell at home.