The next time you answer your smartphone and press it firmly to your face, consider this: Are you touching fecal matter right now?
Quite possibly. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine found fecal matter on one out of every six smartphones in a 2011 study. Add to that the work of Charles Gerba, a famed University of Arizona microbiologist who found cell phones carry 10 times the bacteria of most toilet seats.
Familiar items we touch every day, from cellphones to kitchen sinks, swarm with far more germs than our toilets. And while 80 percent of infections come from what we touch, we rarely clean these ordinary items as often as our porcelain thrones.
It only takes two weeks for a brand new pair of shoes to collect 421,000 units of bacteria, the average amount Gerba found in a sole-searching footwear study. Nearly a third of shoes (27 percent) carried E. coli, indicating “frequent contact with fecal material, which most likely originates from floors in public restrooms or contact with animal fecal material outdoors,” Gerba said. Throwing the shoes in a washing machine with detergent nixed 90 percent of the bacteria or more, the study found—including all fecal matter. (Just don’t wear your shoes in the home.)
“If an alien came from space and studied the bacterial counts, he probably would conclude he should wash his hands in your toilet and crap in your sink,” Gerba said in a university profile. Kitchen sinks carry more bacteria than both toilets and garbage cans, his work shows. Even worse is the damp kitchen sponge nearby, which Gerba found can be 200,000 times dirtier than your toilet. Hit your sink with hot, soapy water and wipe it daily with disinfecting wipes, he told Today, and put sponges in the microwave for a minute while wet to sanitize them.
The outdoor areas children play in proved dirtier than both outdoor port-o-potties and shopping cart handles, Gerba said, letting kids swing and slide on dangerous bacteria. “I won’t let my grandchildren go into playgrounds, though some of them do have hand sanitizing stations these days,” he told Good Housekeeping. “Playgrounds are essentially public toilets for birds, and you’ll never see, say, a soccer ball without E.coli on it.” If you care for kids, carry hand sanitizer, he said.
Reusable shopping bags
One Gerba study found that 97 percent of shoppers had never cleaned their reusable bags, creating a breeding ground for potentially deadly bacteria. Randomly tested bags from shoppers contained bacteria levels high enough to cause a slew of serious health problems, Gerba said, including food-borne illnesses that leave children especially vulnerable. A thorough washing of the bags, though, killed virtually all the built-up bacteria, the study found.
It’s not just cell phones that never get cleaned, Gerba’s work shows, but also similarly fumbled items such as TV remotes. Both may be crawling with germs, but it’s the latter that could prove more dangerous because it’s more likely to be shared. Items that aren’t typically shared, like cell phones, carry a single set of germs that won’t get the owner sick, Gerba said. It’s when multiple people touch a shared item — think of an iPad, for instance — that owners can become ill, he said. Use a simple disinfectant wipe to clean such surfaces.
Josh Hafner, USA TODAY