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Mobile Phones; The Bacteria and Virus Carrying Vectors that Live in Our Pockets

The following article is part 1 in our 5 part series regarding the danger mobile phones pose to our heath in terms of being vectors for the growth and spread of viruses & bacteria. If you want to follow along, head back to our introduction to phone sanitization.

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Take a look around your home and look at all of your furniture and surfaces. Walk through every room, including your bathroom.

What surface do you think has the highest concentrations of bacteria and viruses?

You may have guessed your bathroom or more specifically, your toilet seat. The kitchen is also a high traffic area that could contain leftover dishes or crumbs as well. Did you think about your doorknobs and handles as well?  How many times have you touched them without washing my hands first?

The Dirtiest Surfaces in Your House 

The truth is that you may not have noticed the most bacteria-covered and virus-covered surface in your house – because they are not exactly visible. Instead, bacteria can be hidden in your pockets, bags or purses. More than any other room, more than any other object, more than your toilet seat or your kitchen sink, your phone is the one playing as a welcoming host for bacteria and viruses. Your phone, relative to all the other surfaces in your home, is astonishingly dirty.

According to a study out of the University of Guelph, between 9% and 15% of phones carry dangerous pathogens [1]. Bringing our phones with us everywhere that we go and handling them almost constantly, we pick up particles from every environment that we expose them to. Every time we touch our phones, we form another pathway that bacteria, viruses, and other microbes can take to infect us. This problem is perplexing both in its size and in its apparent inevitability.

Because we cannot use our phones without touching them, we are systematically exposing ourselves to the bacteria and viruses they carry. Every text, every call, every tap, every swipe, we are transferring the potentially-dangerous particles that have clung to our phones. Unless we immediately rush off to wash and sanitize our hands, it becomes highly likely that at least some of the particles will end up in our mouths or in our eyes.

Researchers out of Nigeria's University of Adi-Ekiti studied everyday phones and drew a stark conclusion: out of the 150 phones that they examined in their study, 124 showed bacterial growth. In their conclusion, they also explained, "Mobile phones have become veritable reservoirs of pathogens as they touch faces, ears, lips and hands of different users of different health conditions. This infection could be reduced through identification, and control of predisposing factors, education and microbial surveillance. Most people do not understand the inherent danger in sharing phones. Sharing phones undoubtedly means cross sharing" [2].

Another study, conducted at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, found that a full 92% of phones were carrying bacteria, including deadly Escherichia coli [3]. They traveled across England to study phone use in the real world, and they asked people survey questions alongside their lab testing, concluding that far too many were failing to wash their hands after they used the bathroom, exacerbating phone contamination and its pitfalls further. Perhaps the most striking finding that they presented, however, was that one out of six phones carried not only bacteria and viruses but also fecal matter.

The Perfect Conveyances for Bacteria and Viruses


In a sense, we have introduced into our lives the perfect conveyances for bacteria and viruses. Unlike any other item used throughout history, our phones are constantly in motion, going where we go and touching whatever we touch. Imagine for a moment that you had never washed your hands and never taken a shower, going through your life touching one public surface after another. Would you feel comfortable eating with your hands? Would you feel comfortable with your hands at all?

Of course not. Yet, this is precisely the reality around most phones. Never washed, never sanitized, coming into contact with innumerable contaminated surfaces, they pass bacteria and viruses more consistently than everything but our hands. It is no wonder that researchers out of the US National Institute of Health advised, "Hundred percent contamination was found in mobile phones and hands of [health care workers] indicating mobile phones can be the potential source of nosocomial pathogens. Our study results suggest that use of mobile phones in health care setup should be restricted only for emergency calls" [4]. Phone sanitation, it turns out, can be a matter of life and death.

There is only one rational course of action: regular sanitation, not only of our hands but of our phones as well. This may at first seem like an extreme measure, but has the potential to save many lives.

Phones have only been touched with such frequency since the first popular smartphones emerged in the mid-2000s. Unlike our hands, which humanity has had countless generations to study as a possible disease vector, smartphones have only been around for a bit over a decade. Hand sanitizer was only popularized in hospitals in 2002 during the H1N1 pandemic, a time when smartphones didn’t even exist. The timeline here is important to note. We haven’t had enough time or experience to understand and implement best practices around cleaning our “third hand”, but there is plenty of literature to support the notion that this is a behavior we should be adopting.

As far as phone usage goes, we have already opened Pandora's box. The dangers that they present are omnipresent. There is no turning back from them, even if we wanted to. What we can do, however, is shift the consciousness around our phones. In the same way that the culture around hand washing has changed, the culture around phone sanitation can change, too. We can push our perspective of this issue forward so that it more closely aligns with reality. By teaching people about the difference they can make for themselves and their families – the role that they can play in saving lives – we can drastically reduce the hazards that our phones present.

 

1. Corrin, T., Lin, J., MacNaughton, C., Mahato, S., & Rajendiran, A. 13 June 2016. "The role of mobile communication devices in the spread of infections within a clinical setting."
Canadian Institute of Public Health Inspectors. https://pubs.ciphi.ca/doi/full/10.5864/d2016-014

2. Famurewa, O & David, O. M. February 2009. "Cell Phone: A Medium of Transmission of Bacterial Pathogens." Marsland Press. http://www.sciencepub.net/rural/0102/wro09_0102_10_69_72.pdf

3. 14 October 2011. "Contamination of UK mobile phones and hands revealed." London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. https://www.lshtm.ac.uk/newsevents/news/2011/mobilephones.html

4. Pal, S., Juyal, D., Adekhandi, S., Sharma, M., Prakah, M., Prakash, R., Sharma, N., Rana, A., & Parihar, A. 27 July 2015. "Mobile phones: Reservoirs for the transmission of nosocomial pathogens." NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4549928/

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