Study: 1 in 6 Cell Phones Contaminated With Fecal Matter

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What’s on your smartphone? Probably fecal matter, according to new research by London scientists.

That’s right, poop — on your phone. If it’s on your phone, it’s very likely on your hands too, say researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Queen Mary, University of London.

Researchers analyzed 780 swab samples — 390 from mobile phones and 390 from the hands that used them — in 12 U.K. cities. They found that 16% of both hands and phones were contaminated with E. coli, potentially illness-causing bacteria that is fecal in origin. The likely reason: because people don’t wash their hands after using the toilet.

That means people are spreading fecal bacteria not just to their phones, but to everything else they touch around them. E. coli can survive on hands and other surfaces for hours, especially in warm conditions (like on a smartphone screen), and is easily transferred to door handles, computer keyboards, food, other people — and back to you. If you contaminate your iPhone with fecal bacteria, then wash your hands, then handle your phone again, you’ve just re-soiled your clean hands.

Overall, the researchers found that 92% of hands and 82% of phones showed some type of bacterial contamination. About a third of hands and a quarter of phones contained Staphylococcus aureus, common bacteria that live on skin but can cause illness if they enter the bloodstream.

When surveyed, however, 95% of people said they washed their hands with soap. “People may claim they wash their hands regularly, but the science shows otherwise,” said study co-author Dr. Ron Cutler of Queen Mary, University of London in a statement.

Two guesses who the nastier gender is. “In previous studies, we found that men’s hands were more contaminated than women’s, and also that men wash hands less often than women in public restrooms,” says Dr. Val Curtis of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

People in the current study who had bacteria on their hands were three times more likely to have contaminated phones as well. The findings don’t mean that your cell phone is necessarily a hotbed of disease, but that it could be. “The bugs we found are more or less harmless,” says Curtis, but notes that the presence of fecal bacteria like E. coli means that if “someone was ill, then they would be likely to transmit pathogens to others.” Other bugs like campylobacter, norovirus and salmonella, which are more likely to cause illness, can also be passed through feces.

The current study was conducted in Brits, but there’s not much reason to think Americans are any more hygienic. And mobile phones are hardly the only objects teeming with bugs around you. Stop and think about every place scientists have ever turned up fecal bacteria — grocery store carts, swimming pools, fast-food restaurant soda fountains and kids’ play areas, ATM keypads, your purse, your washing machine, prewashed salad greens, food court trays, and pretty much everything in a hotel room — and it makes it hard to lay your hands on anything again.

But before you swaddle yourself in a hazmat suit, remember there’s actually an easy way to avoid infection: wash your hands, especially after you use the bathroom. (If you think your hands haven’t been contaminated after using the toilet because you didn’t touch anything in there, think again.) Need a primer on hand washing? Use soap and water to clean all surfaces of your hands, including between your fingers and under your nails. Wash for 20 seconds. Don’t touch anything in public bathrooms, if you can help it. Use paper towels to turn the faucets and to open the door. If you don’t have access to soap and water, then at least use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

The authors of the new study say they will submit their paper for publication, following further analysis of the types of phones and users sampled and more detailed bacterial and viral profiling.