Can I get H1N1 from grading papers?
September 16, 2009 4:25 PM   Subscribe

Are student papers a possible vector for H1N1? Is there a way to sanitize them without destroying them?

I'm 9 weeks pregnant, and TAing a class at a university that's already had several hundred cases of H1N1 identified. I'm doing everything I can to avoid physical contact with students (and they've been told by the university to stay home if they're feeling sick), but I'm going to be grading, by hand, lots of assignments and it occurs to me that sick student's snotty hand ->paper ->my hand->my eyes/nose is a possible transmission source. I'll be getting vaccinated ASAP, of course. But in the mean time:
1) Is my concern realistic?
2) If so, are there practical ways I can sterilize student assignments without destroying them? Or measures I can take to minimize transmission risk?

(Anonymous because we're not public about the pregnancy yet)

Sorry if this sounds crazy. First time preggo, first time flu pandemic, trying to be reasonably cautious.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

The CDC says H1N1 can last around 8 hours on a surface. Another site says 48 hours. I'd cut the difference and suggest waiting 24 hours before grading papers, if you can.
posted by sbutler at 4:34 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

You can also wear rubber gloves while handling the papers, if you don't mind appearing slightly crazy.
posted by donajo at 4:40 PM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Also, I think your concern in founded. I'd wouldn't worry excessively about it, but you probably are at an increased risk.

If it makes you feel any better, in my experience most students print out their papers 10 minutes before class starts. So the amount of time they've handled them is pretty minimal.
posted by sbutler at 4:40 PM on September 16, 2009

Is it an option to have students submit everything electronically? That's my plan for distancing myself from H1N1 and reducing the paper clutter I accumulated last year.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 4:43 PM on September 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

I agree with the suggestion of having the papers turned in electronically. This may come up anyways, if there are so many kids out sick - you may have to get papers electronically, so just ask for them to begin with.
posted by MeetMegan at 4:44 PM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

sick student's snotty hand ->paper ->my hand->my eyes/nose

Wash your hands before touching your eyes or nose.
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:46 PM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

nthing have papers turned in via email. better for the environment, better for you.

if these are blue book exams or something like that, i guess just have them drop the books on the corner of the desk, wait until everyone's gone, put on your rubber gloves, and scoop them into your bag. then let 'em sit for a couple of days.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 4:50 PM on September 16, 2009

To answer your second question, you could use an ultraviolet sterilizer (the kind that's shaped like a box for sterilizing medical tools) to nuke each paper. I saw some listed on Alibaba for around $90, though they'd have to be shipped in from China.

It would be sort of insane overkill, but I'm the kind of person who thinks having a UV sterilizer around would be pretty sweet anyway. You could use it to sterilize media for growing edible mushrooms, or for clearing out bacteria from beer making or all sorts of cool stuff. Sure, to normal people you'd be that crazy lady, but to all your nerd friends you'd have a totally sweet piece of tech just waiting for off-label uses!
posted by klangklangston at 5:30 PM on September 16, 2009

Data point of one: a prof that I RA for stopped getting sick after wearing latex gloves while grading.

I too always got a cold after paper grading but stopped after moving to an online course system.
posted by k8t at 5:36 PM on September 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

Who's to say wearing rubber gloves is crazy? Considering the 'hundreds' of infections, there are always people that might be infected but hasn't yet reported it... That's not a bad idea when handling anything common for that note...

Those OCD hand-washers are going 'I told you so!'... LOL
posted by chrisinseoul at 6:11 PM on September 16, 2009

Poke around the CDC website for general information and try to take the basic precautions against the flu such as hand hygiene, not touching your face, etc.

-Keep at least 6 ft. away from students and have them deposit their papers in the grading box, or if you can, ask someone else to pick up the exams for you.
-If you feel better about it don a surgical/respirator mask, but they're more effective at keeping people with the flu from passing it along then protecting you. Unfortunately you don't have the ability to don the eye protection, mask, gown and gloves that we do in the hospital.
-Handle the papers/instruments with gloves and then disinfect the area afterward.
-If you feel like you're coming down with any influenze like symptoms, do go see your doctor. Although it won't be useful for H1N1, since you are high risk, he may give you an anti-viral.
posted by palionex at 6:13 PM on September 16, 2009

A study published in May 2008 suggests that your concerns are indeed realistic:
In a study conducted at Switzerland's Central Laboratory of Virology at the University Hospitals of Geneva, researchers tested to see what would happen when flu virus was placed on Swiss franc notes. In some of these tests, researchers placed flu virus mixed in with nasal secretions from children on banknotes —and saw some unexpected results.

When protected by human mucus, the flu cells were much hardier—in some cases, lasting up to 17 days on the franc notes. The virus that persisted for 17 days was a form of influenza A called H3N2. In an email interview, Dr. Yves Thomas said samples of an influenza A strain called H1N1 also endured for quite a bit—in some cases, up to 10 days. That bug was similar but not identical to the virus at the center of the current swine flu outbreak, which is considered a new strain of H1N1.
Since being pregnant puts you in one of the CDC's high-risk categories, the idea of requiring that papers be submitted by email makes a lot of sense, I think.
posted by Lexica at 6:25 PM on September 16, 2009

Gloves are way cheap. You can pick up nitrile and latex gloves at Costco. Even regular drugstores can sell the stuff.
posted by jadepearl at 6:51 PM on September 16, 2009

I understand that you're worried. But it seems to be that handling cash would be perhaps more risky than handling student papers, and nobody's told us not to handle cash. My intuition about these relative risks might be wrong, though.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:21 PM on September 16, 2009

Jaltcoh nailed it. You're not going to get an infection from touching the papers unless you subsequently touch your eyes, nose, mouth, etc. Wash your hands after handling. (Just like you should after touching any number of questionable surfaces.)
posted by knave at 7:47 PM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

One of the nice things about wearing gloves is that you are a lot less likely to unconsciously touch your eyes, face, etc.; they may you very aware of the surface of your hands. They're useful to have around too; after Alton Brown convinced me to save myself from painful accidental contact from hot pepper slicing I realized they are a natural for any job where your hands tend to get dirty in a smelly/gross/annoying way. They are cheap and easily found at any drug store.
posted by nanojath at 7:58 PM on September 16, 2009

Maybe try popping them in the oven on a very low heat (like 200 F or lower) for an hour or so. It's no autoclave, but it would reduce the numbers of any viruses on the papers. I don't think UV would penetrate beyond the first few sheets.
posted by exogenous at 8:00 PM on September 16, 2009

I don't think UV would penetrate beyond the first few sheets.

Draw a big circle on the ground, throw it all up in the air, and what God wants, He keeps!

Oh, wait ...

Maybe try popping them in the oven on a very low heat (like 200 F or lower) for an hour or so.

pile of loose paper - oven - yeah no.

That's wet (vinegar) paper that's only in there a short time and checked every few minutes. While I did have a midwife tell us once to put birthing gear (clothes etc) into a paper bag and put in the oven @ 200 or 250 few a few hours, it was seam up and carefully attended.

I agree with the previous posters about alcohol-based hand sanitizers and gloves a lot to keep you from touching yourself inappropriately (in the fluish sense).

But if you know a friend with an autoclave, (are those wet or dry?) or feel like tossing a couple handfuls of fundamentally equivalent papers into an autoclave or electric dryer ...

I've heard about microwaves but dry stuff burns. I'd not, nor the dryer come to think of it ...
posted by tilde at 10:38 PM on September 16, 2009

This may help you rest easier. An article in Newsweek says it's actually pretty difficult to catch the flu from germs on your hands.
posted by exphysicist345 at 10:49 PM on September 16, 2009

pile of loose paper - oven - yeah no. ... That's wet (vinegar) paper that's only in there a short time and checked every few minutes.

There, the vinegar contains acetic acid which reacts with the paper, and the reaction is accelerated in the oven to produce "aged" paper. This has nothing to do with what I suggested. What was that book by Bradbury called, Fahrenheit 200?

But if you know a friend with an autoclave, (are those wet or dry?)

You can set them either way.
posted by exogenous at 4:49 AM on September 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

It seems like you could bake them at 325F for a half hour or so. That should kill any wee beasties.

Just stand by the oven with a fire extinguisher the first time you do it.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:42 AM on September 17, 2009

I understand, exogenous.

Permit me to expand - I was looking for examples of paper in the oven - but of what I found the paper was wetted in a fashion. Whether the instruction to check was for "aging" or risk of fire wasn't as explicit as I would have liked it to be, it's all I've got short of getting the fire crew down to my house while experimenting for her.

I encourage you to create your own equivalent set of papers, written, typed, stapled, paperclipped - whatever real world equivalent works for you, and try your advice out - I'm interested in the results given the lack of 'net resources.

If we don't have a big fire boom, I guess the next step would be to dig up germs and testing equipment.

Update: Went to look for more and found a contact dry spray:
posted by tilde at 9:30 PM on September 17, 2009

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