The vomit machine lives on; norovirus can aerosolize during vomit events

I’ve been lucky to be close to some excellent projects, some of the stuff and knowledge created through these projects ends up mattering to food safety nerds – especially those who are making risk management decisions. Former NC State student Grace Tung-Thompson’s PhD project on vomit spray and norovirus is one of the most impactful. The work was carried out as part of the USDA NIFA-funded NoroCORE project led by my friend Lee-Ann Jaykus.VOMIT-BLOG-HEADER-698x393

I’ve talked to lots of Environmental Health Specialists, retailers and food service food safety folks about what Grace and fellow graduate student Dominic Libera put together and many respond with a weird level of enthusiasm for the barf project.

Mainly because a real question they struggle with is how far will virus particles travel from an up-chuck event – knowing this, and then cleaning and sanitizing helps limit the scope of a potential outbreak.  Grace’s work was published in PLOS ONE a while ago, we used it as a centerpiece for a Conference for Food Protection issue on vomit clean up in 2016 (which, maybe, could be included in the oft rumored 2017 Food Code) and the Daily Beast  covered the work today.

A couple of years ago, PhD student Grace Tung Thompson demonstrated something incredibly gross: When a person vomits, little tiny bits of their throw-up end up airborne. You could ingest them just by breathing air in the same room. As if that weren’t disconcerting enough, if the person got sick from a virus, there could be enough viruses in the air to get you sick, too. Just try not to think about that the next time the person in the row behind you throws up on an airplane.
So how do you get rid of airborne viruses? “There is no known technology that will eliminate norovirus if it’s in the air,” Jaykus said, “and there really aren’t a lot of technologies—safe technologies—that even are likely to work.” Her research team recently experimented with misting antiviral compounds into spaces as an alternative to disinfecting surfaces individually, and it worked, but not completely. This technique, known as fogging, can only be used in spaces that can be cleared out and contained, like bathrooms, for example. “I think we need that technology, and that technology is really, really important, but how the heck we’re going to develop it? I’m at a loss for words.”

From an individual perspective, the best you can do is get yourself far away from a vomiting incident; Jaykus recommends at least 100 feet. If you were in the middle of a meal at a restaurant and someone at the next table threw up, you’d probably be wise to stop eating, and to wash yourself and your clothes when you are able.

From the perspective of a restaurant owner, the best course of action is to do a really, really good job of the cleanup. Commercial vomit and fecal matter cleanup kits are catching on with bigger companies in the foodservice industry, says Jaykus. They provide personal protection, including disposable coveralls and respirator masks, in addition to the material required to pick up and wipe down the mess.

This entry was posted in Food Safety Culture, Food Safety Policy, Norovirus and tagged , , by Ben Chapman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.