I was feeling giddy this week that the bird flu hadn't taken me out, or a nuke from North Korea, when I realized how silly I was being.

It is the season of the killer shopping cart, again. The handles are an axis of evil, laden with traces of every known bodily fluid and countless battalions of bacteria.

Or so we are duly warned.

Fear never takes a holiday: E. coli in the spinach? Been there. Salmonella in the peanut butter? Done that. It's the cart handle's time.

The cart crisis isn't new. It reaches up from the grave every couple of years.

They don't call it the "news cycle" for nothing: Whole grains have 11 months left before they get benched, to rest up for 2010. You heard it here first.

Sometimes it's handle-cover makers who fan the flames; engaging in a bit of viral marketing, so to speak.

Sometimes it's the media echo chamber just echoing on and on, replaying the story in an endless loop.

Last month, it was the geniuses in the Arkansas legislature that got things stirred up.

They passed a guideline - supermarket lobbyists killed the word "rule" - asking stores to offer sanitary handle wipes.

They called it the "Health-Conscious Shopper Bill," and it is a monument, I suppose, to something.

Arkansas is a bottom-feeder in a lot of health areas: Its public-health spending ranks way down there. Immunization rates for kids are pitiful. But it leads the way on occasion: in smoking, for instance. And when it comes to obesity, it's in the top 10.

One might conclude that it's what's in the shopping carts instead of what's on them that's a problem. But that's Nanny State stuff: The Health-Conscious Shopper Bill isn't about putting warning labels on bathtub-sized jugs of Coca-Cola, no sir.

We have come to a curious shopping pass in this great nation - a sort of red state, blue state cultural divide.

There are your neat-freak, shrink-wrap, surgical-gloves, hairnet, ultra-pasteurized, untouched-by-human-hands shoppers. Let's call them Cart-Cover Buyers.

And lurking around a farm stand near you, there are your handpicked, hand-baked, homemade, artisanal-cheese, dirt-on-the-potatoes folks who, whenever possible, eschew shopping carts altogether, bringing a hemp string bag to market or carrying a basket. (Notice you never see scary bacteria counts for basket handles?)

That all God's shoppers regardless of their preferences must confront manual door-pulls and ATMs on their outings, and escalator railings and vending-machine knobs, and headrests and toll takers and cashiers and the guy who sells you coffee and the tray of pork chops and kids and spontaneous sneezes and shoelaces and non-auto-flush toilets levels the germ playing field.

It confers - enforces? - a common humanity, like the weather. They don't call them infectious smiles or contagious laughs for nothing.

You can run - Howard Hughes gave it a whirl - but you can't hide. Even if you decide to avoid the first-person encounters and do your shopping online.

I consider my keyboard. I know the troubles it has seen. And how long it's been collecting more than dust.

Do blood, sweat and tears improve the appetite, I wonder?

Or just build your immunity?

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.