iPads and Four Other Everyday Items Dirtier than a Toilet Seat

The rubber ducky perched at the end of your tub might look like a friendly bath time companion, but it is in fact teeming with potentially harmful bacteria and fungi according to new research.

Thanks to its warm, humid environment, the average bathroom is the ideal home for bacterial and fungal biofilms—a group of microorganisms which stick to each other and often also to a surface. That’s why unsightly mold patches can invade your shower curtain and bathroom walls if the room isn’t properly ventilated. 

If not kept dry or cleaned, the insides of flexible bath toys can become filled with dense growths of bacteria and fungi, warned the study’s authors at The Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag), the Swiss university ETH Zurich and the University of Illinois.

To make their findings published in the journal Nature, the scientists assessed the growth of biofilms in real-world bath toys, as well as toys kept in lab conditions which simulated a household bathroom. During an 11-week period, some toys were brought into contact with clean water, while others were exposed to dirty bath water containing soap, human body fluids and bacteria.

GettyImages-465749735 Plastic bath ducks are pictured at the Nuremberg International Toy Fair on January 29, 2014 in Nuremberg, Germany. Rubber ducks kept in bathrooms have been found to be riddled with bacteria. Timm Schamberger/Getty Images

Cutting open the toys, researchers found fungal species in almost 60 percent of the real bath toys and in all the dirty-water control toys. Potentially harmful bacteria was found in 80 percent of all the toys studied. That includes Legionella, which can cause bacterial pneumonia, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can lead to chest infections in those with weakened immune systems.

Dr. Frederik Hammes of Eawagm, who supervised the study’s lead author and microbiologist Lisa Neu, suggested in a statement that keeping a squishy toy in the bath is a double-edged sword. Children who squirt water from their toys: “could strengthen the immune system, which would be positive, but it can also result in eye, ear, or even gastrointestinal infections.”

Rubber duckies are far from the first household items scientists have found to be riddled with potentially harmful microbes. In fact, research shows many everyday items are dirtier than the average toilet seat. 

“The cleanest item germ wise we find in homes, offices and schools is the top of a toilet seat,” Dr. Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona who is an authority on microbes, told Newsweek. “Why? Because people are afraid of butt borne diseases—so they nuke the toilet with disinfectants."

A 2012 paper by Gerba showed that the average toilet seat has 50 different types of bacteria per square inch. That, it turns out, is a lot lower than the following items.

Kitchen sponge

catt-liu-1624-unsplash The kitchen sink sponge is one of the dirtiest items in the house, according to researchers. maundytime/Unsplash

The sponge you use to scrub your dishes could be home to around 10 million bacteria per square inch, according to Gerba.

“The germiest things in the household are in the kitchen. Number one is the kitchen sponge, loaded with E. coli. Fifteen percent contain Salmonella which causes diarrhea,” he said. “The reason is, it is wet and full of food for bacteria.”

Cutting board

max-delsid-479114-unsplash Chopping boards that come into contact with raw meat can be teeming with bacteria if not cleaned properly. Max Delsid/Unsplash

There is 200 times more fecal bacteria like E. coli on the average kitchen chopping board than the toilet seat, due to the raw meat that comes into contact with it, Gerba’s research showed.

Cell phone

GettyImages-846148982 (1) The new iPhone X is displayed during an Apple special event at the Steve Jobs Theatre on the Apple Park campus on September 12, 2017 in Cupertino, California. Research shows that the average smartphone is dirtier than a toilet seat. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Every time you put your phone to your ear, you could be rubbing fecal bacteria against your face, according to several studies carried out on the devices. While we might be inclined to disinfect kitchen worktops, most people simply forget to clean their smartphones.

Gerba's 2012 study showed that cellphones carry 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats. This mirrored the findings of a 2011 study by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, which showed one in six cellphones are contaminated with faecal matter.

"You won’t find this in any medical textbook, but I can safely say: don’t use your phone in the loo," Dr. Erica Shenoy, assistant physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Newsweek. 

"After you use the bathroom, wash your hands with soap and water—and do it correctly! A dab of soap and a quick rinse under the tap is not called hand washing," she said. "You need to lather that soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds. Then rinse those hands and dry them.  Then, once you are out of the bathroom, go ahead and use your phone."

Tablets

GettyImages-875405214 AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty Images

Just like smartphones, their larger cousins are riddled with bacteria. Research by British consumer watchdog Which? found “hazardous” levels of bacteria on iPads and other tablets, with 600 units of Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause severe stomach bugs, per swab.

Toothbrush holder

GettyImages-73080862 Christof Koepsel/Getty Images

For a vessel to contain something we stick in our mouths on a daily basis, the neglect suffered by the humble toothbrush holder is pretty alarming. According to studies by NSF International, a global public health and safety non-profit group, it was the one item with the most germs with an average of 2.4 million cells per 10 cm², Lisa Yakas, a consumer products certification expert at the institution, told Newsweek.

So how worried should we be by these studies? "The key is to use the very simple tools you have available—including hand washing—to prevent these germs from resulting in infection and causing harm," said Shenoy.  "The take home message is: hand hygiene is the cornerstone of infection prevention. People need to wash their hands with soap and water during activities and in situations when organisms are likely to get on your hands and then be transmitted to others or self-inoculate."

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