Germs are all around us -- the bathroom, the office, the subway. And our cell phones and mobile devices pick up all manner of bacteria from constant handling. But while you’re not likely to go around licking things on the subway, many of us are putting germ-ridden objects up near our faces many times a day. That gives the bacteria hitching a ride on your iPhone an express trip to your mouth, ears and nose.
So, as amazing and clean as your new iPad Mini may look just out of the box, in just a little while it will soon be a swamp of microorganisms that could make you sick.
You might want to reconsider trying out new devices on the shop floor as well, or at least bring your hand sanitizer along. In June 2010, the New York Daily News sampled four iPads in New York City Apple stores to see what was lurking on the devices. The constant handling by customers, unsurprisingly, resulted in a cornucopia of microscopic critters, including staphylococcus aureus, which can cause staph infections, and corynebacterium minutissimum, which is linked to skin rashes.
"We've all seen that greasy smear [on the touch screen],” Medical University of South Carolina immunologist Michael Schmidt told the Wall Street Journal. Where there is grease, there are bugs."
One of the more common residents on mobile phones is -- hopefully you’re not eating lunch right now -- coliform bacteria, which is an indicator of fecal contamination. The WSJ tested eight phones and found between 2,700 and 4,200 units of the coliform bacteria. For reference, the accepted limit in drinking water is under 1 unit per 100 milliliters.
Study after study indicates that our phones are swimming in minute bits of poop. A 2011 study led by researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine looked at 780 swab samples -- half from phones and half from the owner’s hands. 16 percent of both hands and phones were contaminated with E. coli, which most likely means fecal contamination. Overall, 92 percent of subjects’ hands and 82 percent of their phones had some kind of bacteria on them.
A 2011 study in India found that 42 percent of health care workers’ phones and 18 percent of the general public’s phones were contaminated with microorganisms. For rings, it was even worse -- 82 percent of hospital workers and 36 percent of the public’s rings tested positive for bacterial contamination.
To get rid of lurking bacteria and other gross matter on your phone, the biggest step you can take is to be sure to wash your hands after using the toilet. Cleaning your mobile device with alcohol is the best way to eliminate bugs. But unfortunately, it’s unclear whether or not alcohol will damage smartphone screens. Apple warns against using household cleaners and alcohol to clean its smartphones, and none of the major smartphone companies can recommend a cleaning product for screens, according to the WSJ.
Some companies are making mobile device accessories that aim to act as barriers to bugs. Many cases and covers from the retailer iSkin use Microban antibacterial technology, found in a variety of manufactured products, from beer coolers to air filters.
The startup Sharklet Technologies Inc. is working on adapting its textured film, which mimics the tiny raised patterns on sharkskin, for cell phone products. The company claims the patterns prevent bacteria from linking up and forming biofilms, which inhibits their growth and can eventually kill them.
Another genre of futuristic mobile device cleaner is UV light sanitizers, which emit ultraviolet light that can kill bacteria by disrupting its DNA. In May, the scrappy startup PhoneSoap raked in more than $63,000 through Kickstarter to fund its combination charger and UV light sanitizer and plans on launching publicly on Dec. 1. Indeed, anyone who can come up with an effective cleaning solution for our precious mobile devices could be in a position to turn a hefty profit -- and perhaps be able to afford all the latest iPhone and iPad upgrades.
Roxanne has liked science ever since she started watching "Bill Nye the Science Guy" on Saturday mornings over a bowl of sucrotic O's. She especially likes writing about...