Columbia University's Dr. Susan Whittier shows off two agar plates filled with bacteria grown from smartphone residue. (Credit: Business Insider)
Columbia University's Dr. Susan Whittier shows off two agar plates filled with bacteria grown from smartphone residue. (Credit: Business Insider)

Published: November 29th, 2016

We all know the health benefits of washing our hands (or at least using hand sanitizer) whenever possible, but how many of us extend the practice to our smartphones?

An experiment recently sponsored and filmed by Business Insider offers scientific evidence for why you might want to start regularly cleaning your device – which, after all, many of us bring to the same locations as our hands, including the bedroom, office, dinner table, and sometimes even the bathroom.

To conduct the experiment, BI enlisted Dr. Susan Whittier, an associate professor of clinical pathology and cell biology at Columbia University, to collect residue samples from the smartphones of 19 anonymous office workers. Whittier then smeared the samples onto agar plates, along with nutritional ingredients such as sheep’s blood, and stored them in a 98.6-degrees-Fahrenheit incubator for 48 hours to stimulate bacterial growth.

The results were striking, to say the least.

Of the 38 samples collected (residue from the front and back of each phone was stored separately), all but two sprouted bacterial growth – which, Whittier was quick to point out, is not a cause for alarm.

“Bacteria are a part of our normal life,” she says in the video. “They’re not going to harm us, they’re not dangerous. You can’t be paranoid about bacteria because they’re everywhere.”

However, she acknowledges that some bacteria are less dangerous than others, and two of the subjects had potentially pathogenic bacteria on their phones: staphylococcus aureus, which can lead to anything from a minor skin infection to diseases such as pneumonia or meningitis; and MRSA, a staphylococcus strain that is resistant to antibiotics.

“That’s certainly not something that you’d want to get into a wound, as it could cause an infection,” Whittier says of MRSA.

In the TMI department, 75 per cent of the experiment’s 19 participants admitted to using their phones in the bathroom “all the time” – and four samples from two of them (including the one represented by the top image) produced bacteria associated with fecal matter, including e. coli and klebsiella pneumoniae, which can lead to a bloody cough.

Otherwise, the most common bacteria found was “things that you would find on your hands,” Whittier says, including bacillus, which are ubiquitous and normally harmless, but include subspecies that can lead to anthrax and food poisoning.

BI, of course, was quick to note that its experiment’s results came from a very small, selective sample and do not necessarily reflect the general population.

“Let’s keep in mind that we did just take a snapshot of cellphones that were within one office,” Whittier says in the video. “But, you know, it just kind of supports the fact that maybe cleaning that phone on a regular basis might be a good idea.”

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