Is the Five-Second Rule Legit?

An investigation into one of the most hotly contested rules in history.

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Aug 9 2016, 4:21pm

Ah, friends. They're like family but cooler. Fully customizable. Fall and one of them will be right there to pick you back up. But as great as friends can be, they also do a lot of really stupid stuff. Stuff that blows your mind. Like, sometimes it seems crazy that you even hang out with people who make such crappy decisions. Stuff that, were it to get out, would be mortifying for anyone with even a shred of self-respect. Lucky for your friends, they've got you to ask their deepest, darkest questions for them. And lucky for you, we started this new column to answer those most embarrassing of queries.

The scenario: Your "friend" toasted the last piece of bread and slathered about three dollars' worth of almond butter on it—then dropped the whole thing facedown as he was getting ready to run out the door.

The hope: That if he snatches up the toast before five seconds elapse he'll be able to eat his breakfast without risk of contracting a terminal carpet disease.

What to consider: A couple years ago, scientists at Aston University in the UK set out to test the five-second rule and determined that yes, time is a factor—the sooner you get your food off the floor, the less bacteria will be on it. But this was in opposition to previous, peer-reviewed (read: possibly more reliable) research: When, in 2006, scientists at ClemsonUniversity dropped bologna and bread on salmonella-dusted carpet, hardwood, and tile, they found that it actually doesn't matter much whether you scoop the food up right away or leave it there while you contemplate just how hungry you are.

Science can agree on a couple key things, though: First, it matters how dirty your floor is, and how long any bacteria on the floor has been there—the nasty shit you tracked in from the sidewalk yesterday is less likely to make you sick today. Second, everyone agrees that the room you're standing in when you get a case of butterfingers is also a factor: Only 1 percent of the bacteria jumped from carpet to food, no matter how many seconds elapsed, while48 percent jumped from wood and 69 percent from tile. And since dry foods present the lowest risk, Elizabeth Scott, co-director of theSimmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community, told VICE, eating toast off the floor is less likely to cause nausea, diarrhea, or vomiting if it fell business-side up.

The worst that could happen: The very worst? That he dies from food poisoning. But those chances are incredibly low, as is the likelihood that he will get sick at all: While there are more than 5,000 types of bacteria chilling in your house at any given time, most of them don't do much of anything to the unwitting humans who come into contact with them. In fact, less than 1 percent of all the bacteria in the world causes disease in humans.

What will probably happen: That dusting of dog hair and dirt will make your friend feel a little ashamed, but not ill. After all, 87 percent of people have eaten food off the floor, and they survived to take a survey about it.

What to do: If you drop a bowl of potato salad on the way to your friend'sBBQ, don't offer it up to his toddler, grandma, or recently ill wife when you get there. "The risks of picking up bacteria that can cause food poisoning are greater for the very young, elderly, and immunocompromised," Scott warned. "But for healthy adults, the risks are generally very low."