A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

The washday blues: Is it safe to wash clothing at the laundromat?

December 16, 2005

Dear Cecil:

A recent move has brought me to a comfy apartment building in friendly Medford, Massachusetts, complete with washer and dryer hookup. However, while having such a hookup is helpful, it's much more practical to have a working hookup, which alas I do not (dirty scamming realtors are to blame). So I'm left with a dilemma: (a) walk up the street to the laundromat; (b) drive home to mum and dad (3.5 hours) once a month; or (c) screw it and give up washing altogether. My fear with respect to (a) lies in what sort of evil lives in the neighborhood laundromat's great tumbling vats. I'm not suggesting the locals or even the owners of said facility are dirty; I'm just curious what kind of statistics you can throw out concerning sanitation and public laundering facilities. I'm concerned that my girlfriend and I will suffer some itchy affliction if we don't boil our clothes after washing them in a public spot. Let me know!

One doesn't hear much about the dangers of laundromats, no doubt due to efforts by the coin-op cartel to suppress the grisly truth, and I regret to say I've been unable to put my hand to any reliable enumeration of injuries, epidemics, and deaths. But if you're determined to lose sleep over what might happen to you come laundry day, maybe the following will help:

  • Snails. OK, so this report comes from Ethiopia, where many wash their duds in streams. Presumably matters are more advanced in Medford, but if they let the laundry hookup in your apartment go to hell, who's to say what goes on in those rusty pipes beneath the laundromat, unseen by wary eyes? The Ethiopians know. Specifically, they know about the snail Biomphalaria pfeifferi, intermediate host to Schistosoma mansoni, a parasitic worm. You can guess where this is going: the schistosomes contaminate water with their eggs (I'm not telling exactly how the eggs get in the water, other than to recommend you keep a close watch on those dirty locals), the eggs develop inside the snails, then the mature parasites get into the water and from there they get into you--to be precise, into your liver, lungs, intestines, or bladder. The resultant condition, schistosomiasis, afflicts some 200 million people worldwide. Streamside laundry is evidently a major transmission route in Ethiopia, where folks have been experimenting with a natural soap and snailicide known as endod, which makes your whites whiter and your snails dead. Some may say: Who needs endod? Nobody gets schistosomiasis in the U.S. Spoken like somebody who's looking to be the first.
  • Microbial contamination. Browsing through the September issue of Journal of Hospital Infection, I see where "textiles sent to hospital laundries contain many types of pathogenic organisms," which may be of pestilential effect. A study in--OK, Slovenia, but let's not put on airs--found on investigation that "the sanitary condition of [a local hospital] laundry did not reach the required level" (probable translation: the place was a sty), wherefore "fundamental sanitation measures were instituted," which I take to mean they sent in a squad of babushkas to kick some housecleaning butt. We've already established that mollusks and parasites may be an issue at the local lavanderia. On the assumption that some of your fellow patrons will be washing bedclothes after their forthcoming bouts with schistosomiasis, you'd better set a petri dish out for microbes, too.
  • Uveal melanoma, i.e., cancer of the pigmented layer of the eye. Recent research has found that European laundry workers have triple the usual rate of this dreadful ailment. No one is publicly saying why, but for those of us capable of putting two and two together (see snails, etc, above) the message is all too clear: see what you can do about that washer/dryer hookup, or learn to love the dirt.

Dear Cecil:

im a 16 year ol physics student i have been noticing when im stiring my coffe int he morning that the bubbles go into the center now i would expect as i have been on many anti gravity rides that they would go outwoulds eg centrefugal foces. now as the bubbles are lighter that the actually liquid you would expect it can you please help me as none of my teachers can answer --jared

Cecil replies:

I'm not saying you don't need my help, kid, but it isn't with physics. You've answered your own question. Since the bubbles are lighter than the liquid, they're shoved out of the way--that is, into the center of the cup--by the denser coffee crowding its way toward the rim. For the same reason, if you have a helium balloon floating inside your car and you slam on the brakes, the balloon paradoxically will be thrown backward while--indeed, because--everything else in the car, including the heavier-than-helium air, is flung to the front.

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