Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dialling for microbes: It's a dirty business

Cellphone germs pose a threat to some

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Crystal Klassen never thought germs and viruses that can cause outbreaks of influenza and other viral illnesses also lurk inside the grooves of her BlackBerry.

That is, until she became a parent.

"Since my kids starting going to daycare, it seems like they're getting it more often," Klassen said. "I started to become more aware of germs being everywhere."

Her BlackBerry was one of 30 smartphones swabbed to test for germs in a Free Press study to uncover exactly how grimy are these addictive hand-held devices.

Although Klassen was one of the 24 people who described her phone-cleaning routine to be a little more lax, she was one of the five people surveyed with young children who said they became more worried about the spread of germs since becoming a parent.

"Wiping it on my clothes, in my mind, seemed to be enough," Klassen said. "I guess I never thought of cleaning it after I use it."

But that is not the case for Winnipeg real estate agent Akash Bedi. He said he uses disinfecting wipes to clean his BlackBerry every month.

"I'm not obsessive about germs, but I'm aware of them," Bedi said. "Since I have small children, it's important to make sure these things are clean."

Research shows smartphones are considered particularly filthy because people are more likely to touch and flick the screens with their hands. These surfaces can also transmit different viruses and germs that cause respiratory or diarrheal illnesses, said Timothy Julian, a post-doctorate environmental health sciences student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, who also co-authored a study on the spread of viruses through glass surfaces in the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

In his study, Julian found when viruses are on a glass surface, about 30 per cent can transfer to fingertips. Although the study did not specifically test smartphones, he said there is ongoing research "looking at virus survival on different surfaces, specifically the type of glass that's used on smartphones, as well as virus transfer -- but it's ongoing research," Julian said.

He also said that children, the elderly or anyone with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk of becoming ill if they come in contact with someone else's infected smartphone.

In the Free Press study, a public toilet seat and bathroom doorknob were swabbed to see how these surfaces compare to some of the dirtiest surfaces. Swab 1 was the toilet seat and test results show this surface had 100,000 bacteria colonies. The bathroom doorknob, swab 2, contained 20. Only one of the smartphones tested had the same bacteria count as the toilet seat, whereas 18 smartphones had a higher bacteria count than the public bathroom doorknob.

Harold Thiessen, owner of Central Testing Laboratory, said the bacteria count was surprisingly low. In fact, nine of the smartphones had a bacteria count so low, the tests did not register a number.

These are surprising results, considering 10 smartphone owners admitted using the devices in the bathroom. Usually, surfaces that have a bacteria count of more than 40,000 are considered filthy and potentially hazardous, Thiessen said.

But John Embil, director of the infection prevention and control unit at the Health Sciences Centre, disagrees.

"The mere presence of bacteria doesn't mean badness, it could mean it's just a high-touch area," Embil said. "Many of the germs we encounter are bacteria that are part of our skin and part of the normal flora that help us fight off other invading organisms -- like our own army."

Embil said since the Free Press study did not identify what kind of bacteria was found, he could not say if the results were unnerving.

Smartphones are much like elevator buttons and ATMs among many surfaces that could potentially harbour pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria, Embil said, but it's no reason to be alarmed.

"(The recent studies) are worthy of note and have interesting findings, but common sense needs to prevail," he said.

"The reality is we can become paralyzed by the fear of germs but the reality is they are there, they're a part of life -- you can't avoid them. Unless you work in a health-care environment, where germs could be potentially harmful, I personally wouldn't do anything than make sure it isn't visibly soiled," Embil said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2011 A6

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