Hi! I'm Caroline and I have a weird obsession with germs and diseases.
I also have an incubator hidden in our DIY studio where I sometimes grow germs for projects. I'm genuinely surprised none of my co-workers have reported me to HR yet.
Humans are covered in germs and most of them are harmless, but the pathogenic ones can make us really sick.
Given that my co-workers are glued to their phones, I wanted to find out what kind of germs they were carrying around.
So I surprised 20 people in the lobby on a Monday morning and tested their phones because I'm literally the worst.
The element of surprise was necessary so that people had no time to prepare or clean their phones once they agreed to let me test them.
I used a special swab kit with a long cotton swab that breaks off into a tube filled with liquid, which preserves the germs until they go onto a petri dish where they can grow. First I got the swab wet with some of the liquid in the tube so it picked up everything (no matter how crusty or dry). Then I swabbed every inch of the phone — no button or corner was spared.
After swabbing, I sent out a questionnaire asking my co-workers where they bring their phone, how they clean it, whether they get sick often, etc. I hoped their answers would allow me to find patterns or common habits among the people who had the germiest or the cleanest phones.
Next, we sent the samples to a microbiology lab at Columbia University Medical Center.
Whittier transferred the swabs onto agar, a nutrient medium that feeds the germs so they can live in petri dishes. We waited three days so the germs had time to grow and ~thrive~ until they were visible to the naked eye. Then Whittier tested the samples to find out exactly which kinds of bacteria, fungi, and molds were living on each person's phone.
The researcher was legitimately shocked by how many germs were on our phones.
"I went into it thinking probably 50% of the plates would grow something, so I was really shocked when 100% of the phone cultures grew a lot of germs," Whittier says. I, however, wasn't shocked — because as I said before, my co-workers are never without their phones.
Just to clarify, Whittier tested for quantity and type of bacteria, fungus, and mold. She didn't test for viruses, like flus or STIs. And considering the amount of bacteria that was found, we kind of don't even want to know about viruses.
First up, the harmless bacteria. Most phones tested positive for these five kinds of germs from the skin, mouth, nose, and the environment.
I thought this one was really pretty and I wanted to take it home — which was 100% not allowed because that's a biohazard.
Some of the phones had actual pathogens, which was a little alarming.
Remember, pathogens are potentially disease-causing strains of bacteria. So, yeah, we had these, too.
Scroll down and slide over each picture to reveal the pathogen!
Like this one, which is nicknamed "Superbug."
What it is: MRSA is a Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics, including methicillin. MRSA can cause very serious infections in the skin and internal organs, and can sometimes be fatal in vulnerable people. It can spread easily between people and surfaces — often in health care settings — but you usually have to have an open wound or a suppressed immune system for it to get that bad.
What it means: "It's a little worrisome for a phone to test positive for MRSA because it isn't part of our normal flora, but a small part of the population can carry it in their nose or mouth without any problems," Whittier explained. We also know that MRSA loves to lurk on gym equipment and locker rooms, so it's not completely abnormal to have it on your phone. "The potential for a little MRSA on a phone to cause disease in a healthy person is very low," says Whittier. And don't worry, this person disinfected their phone as soon as they found out.
Or this bacteria, which is responsible for staph infections and toxic shock syndrome.
What it is: Staphylococcus aureus is a group of pathogenic staph bacteria which can cause a bunch of different diseases and infections. They can live on the skin or in the respiratory tract and nose — and about half the population carries Staph aureus with no problems. But this also makes it easy to spread between people and cause disease.
It can also live on surfaces, like subway handles, doorknobs, community bathrooms and showers, and especially gyms. "It's important to wipe down gym equipment with antibacterial wipes before and after you use it and put your phone on a paper towel first to avoid picking up staph and MRSA," Whittier says.
What it means: It's a bit concerning, says Whittier, because if Staph aureus gets into an open wound it can cause major skin and blood infections, which can result in boils, food poisoning, toxic shock syndrome, and even death. But, again, some people can carry it with no problem.
OH, PS: The Staph aureus was actually found on my phone and I only tested it for fun BUT THIS WAS NOT FUN.
Or this one, which is really ~shitty~.
What it is: I mean, basically poop. You've probably heard of E. coli from restaurant outbreaks and supermarket food recalls. It's a fecal organism, so it's usually found in poop but it can also live in the gastrointestinal tract along with other gut bacteria. There are different types, and some strains are way more pathogenic than other ones, but it has the potential to cause serious food poisoning and death. Infections spread through the fecal-oral route, so you'll get sick if you touch your mouth with contaminated hands after using the bathroom or touching fecal matter.
What it means: "E. coli on a phone could be from the person's stool if they didn't wash their hands or another person's stool if the phone went into a public bathroom because fecal matter sprays everywhere when the toilet flushes," Whittier says. This is why you shouldn't bring your phone to the bathroom or use it while eating. Interestingly enough, the guy who had this on his phone actually got sick from a burrito contaminated with E. coli a month ago — so it made sense.
And this not-so-fun little fungus:
What it is: Two phones tested positive for a type of yeast, called Candida albicans. It's definitely not the kind you use to bake bread. "It's not a very common skin germ and it has the potential to be pathogenic and cause things like thrush or yeast infections in immunocompromised patients or babies," Whittier says.
What it means: If it's on a cell phone it probably isn't enough to make a healthy person sick. "If you are immunocompetent and aren't prone to infections, yeast on your hands or phone isn't likely to cause any problems," says Whittier. It's easy to clean off with a diluted alcohol solution.
So this is us, sharing our office with lots of fun, potentially disease-causing bacteria. Cool.
BUT the researcher assured us that our office isn't a biohazard and we aren’t all about to die.
Sanitize. Your. Phones. I tested mine again right after cleaning it, and it was bacteria-free!
It's also important to wash your hands and not use your phone in the bathroom or while eating, because that defeats the purpose of washing your hands.
Even if you're an avid hand-washer, your phone can still be picking up germs basically all day long. So try to limit that by keeping it out of the bathroom (where gross stuff like Norovirus lurks), and don't use it while you're eating, since that can transmit bacteria and viruses to your mouth and get you sick. "We aren't trying to be sterile or paranoid — there's just no reason not to try to reduce your risk and exposure to pathogens," says Whittier.