Bare feet magnets for germs

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The beach, the gym, the security scanner at the airport -- all places many of us walk around barefoot.  You may not give it a second thought when you take off your socks and shoes, but because of what Channel 4's Nikki Kimbleton found, and our expert confirmed, you should.

Dangerous bacteria could be lurking in these public places and they could hitch a ride home on your feet.  One Atlantic Beach resident knows this all too well.  Barbara, who doesn't want to be identified, travels by plane almost every week. To make her life easier, she wears flats to the airport that are easy to get on and off.

"I never thought anything like this would happen," Barbara said. "Wearing flats through the airport is the most comfortable way to travel."

A few months ago, Barbara noticed some spots on her feet. They turned out to be warts, doctors say caused by coming in contact with the human papillomavirus, or HPV.  Her doctor says she likely got the warts going barefoot in a public place.  The only place Barbara could think of, airport security.

"I don't belong to a gym and I travel all during the week," Barbara said. "The only place I really take off my shoes is at the airport and then walk through to stand in TSA line."

IMAGES:  What you're walking on

Whether Barbara picked up HPV in airport security or not, we wanted to see what was lurking on the ground of the TSA security scanner. We took a sample from a pair of socks Barbara wore when she went through. We put the sample in a petri dish designed to help bacteria grow and after a week, it was obvious we had something significant.

We took the results to the microbiology department at University of North Florida so they could run tests and let us know exactly what was growing inside.  Even though they could not do the complex test for HPV, they did find other things.

"We found staph on the sample from airport security. We all found fungus." Dr. Terri Ellis, a microbiologist at UNF said.

Since TSA is just one of the places people go barefoot, we collected samples from several other floors all over Jacksonville.  Ellis tested those too for ecoli, staph and fungus.  The tests revealed positive results for staphylococcus and fungus on almost every floor we sampled. This included two local dressing rooms, a yoga studio, as we mentioned TSA security and the locker room inside of a Jacksonville gym. 

It was inside the locker room sample where UNF biologists found something else growing in the petri dish. They found ecoli.  It's something Dr. Vimal Reddy with First Coast Foot Clinic said is even more dangerous than staph.

"The ecoli infection can be a much worse infection than the staph infection," Dr. Reddy said. "Ecoli is caused by feces as well so that's where the danger comes in. If you go into a bathroom or something with an open sore and the bathroom hasn't been cleaned properly, or even if it has, ecoli can still thrive there."

Whether it's a fungus, a virus, staph or ecoli, Reddy said it's very likely you're stepping on something nasty if you go barefoot in any public place.

"If your bare feet come in contact with staph and you have a crack in your foot or a sore, you can get a very serious infection. Anywhere from minor cellulitis to hospitalization," he explained.

Reddy said our tests only show a portion of what's crawling around in the places we walk without shoes.  Again, we didn't test for HPV which is what Barbara's doctor says caused the warts on her feet.  But, Reddy said there are other dangers. The most common one is fungus.

Fungal infections can be very superficial where you need an over the counter medicine or it can be very serious where you need a prescription. A lot of times you can get a bacterial infection on top of the fungal infection," said Reddy.

That's why he said you should always have your feet covered, especially in public places.   It's advice Barbara now follows closely. She said she's heard the same suggestions from TSA agents at several different airports.

"I've asked them if they've sanitized the area...if they've sprayed, disinfected it or anything. They look at me and say I would never walk through here without socks on." said Barbara.

Reddy said socks are enough to protect your feet at airport security but otherwise try to always wear shoes or flip flops.

In addition to the places mentioned above that were swabbed for bacteria and germs we also tested three beach access ramps. While they tested negative for both ecoli and staph, UNF did find signs of fungus.

If you do go barefoot, treat your feet like your hands and wash them often. You can even use an anti-bacterial cleanser.  Reddy also said the first signs of an infection or problem; redness, cracking or peeling on the bottoms of your feet that you've never had before.  It's at that point he said you need to see a doctor.