Family Matters

School Band Instruments are Teeming with Bacteria and Fungi

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Playing a musical instrument is great for kids’ developing brains — think it’s sheer coincidence that Tiger Mom placed so much emphasis on piano practice? — but a new study shows it could be bad for their health.

In the latest installment of truly gross academic research, the journal General Dentistry has published a study showing used woodwind and brass instruments are heavily contaminated with a bacteria and fungi. Even worse, those bacteria and fungi are linked to infections ranging from minor to serious infectious and allergic diseases. (More on Study: Are Music-Loving Teens More Likely to Be Depressed?)

Joining the band is practically a rite of passage in many middle and high schools, and students often play instruments on loan. Factor in children who take private music lessons but rent instruments, and the findings of the study from Oklahoma State University could potentially affect more than a few budding musicians.

“We found the instruments heavily, heavily contaminated with molds, yeasts and bacteria, all of which have potential to cause disease in the player,” says Tom Glass, lead author of the study and a professor of forensic sciences, pathology and dental medicine at Oklahoma State University. “If you find your child is getting sick and plays a wind instrument, you might want to take a closer look.”

To reach their nasty conclusions, researchers tested 117 different sites, including the mouthpieces, internal chambers and cases belonging to 13 previously played high school band instruments. (More on How Group Drumming May Improve Low-Income Student Behavior)

Six of the instruments had been played recently, within a week of testing, but seven hadn’t been used for a month. Yet together, they yielded 442 different bacteria, including 58 molds, 19 yeasts and a generous helping of Staphylococcus, which can lead to staph infections.

Mold in a child’s instrument could contribute to the development of asthma, and yeasts can cause skin infections around the mouth and lips. The bacteria are the same sort detected in dentures, athletic mouthguards and toothbrushes, says Academy of General Dentistry spokesperson Cynthia Sherwood, a dentist in Kansas.

“It’s kind of disgusting,” says Sherwood, whose kids played clarinet and saxophone in school. “It’s too late for my children now. They’re probably Typhoid Mary.”

Since many of the bacteria are antibiotic-resistant, it’s important to sterilize instruments at least once a year. Physically breaking down an instrument and wiping it clean with an antiseptic agent will decrease bugs but it won’t kill spores. Only sterilization will do that. But sterilization is hard to come by; it relies upon ethylene oxide, a gas used to sterilize instruments (not the musical kind) in operating rooms that is available through medical supply houses or at MaestroMD. (More on Time.comHands-Free Faucets May Spread More Germs Than Manual Taps)

Sanitization is easier to achieve, say researchers. Frequently wipe the area that comes into contact with the skin, and disassemble the instrument regularly. Used instruments should have brand-new reeds and band instruments that are recycled among students should be completely disinfected before each new school year. And don’t share instruments, although that seems to go without saying: in any case, after reading this study, who would want to?