Now wash your hands - and your mobile

Mobile phone Often not as clean as it looks...

It is the sort of news story that will have left many feeling queasy over their breakfast cereal - a study which suggests one in six mobile phones is contaminated with faecal matter.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Queen Mary, University of London took nearly 400 samples from mobile phones and hands in 12 British cities.

They found 16% of phones and 16% of hands harboured E. coli (Escherichia coli), bacteria which inhabit the human intestines.

The largest proportion of contaminated phones was in Birmingham (41%) while Londoners were caught with the highest proportion of E. coli present on hands (28%).

Start Quote

Why do so many people clearly not wash their hands with soap after a visit to the toilet? Perhaps they do, but are simply doing it wrong.”

End Quote Fergus Walsh

But the sample size in each city was small, so the variations between them could be a statistical anomaly.

However Dr Val Curtis, from the London School of Hygiene says the study showed clear differences between north and south.

"We found the further north we went the more hands and phones were likely to be contaminated. It could be the bugs survive better in colder and wetter conditions or it might be that people wash their hands less."

I explained to Dr Curtis that such comments were unlikely to win her friends in Glasgow and Liverpool - two of the cities where samples were taken.

But she brushed this aside explaining that after a similar survey three years ago she was advised not to hang around Newcastle.

Dr Ron Cutler of Queen Mary, University of London, explains the findings

Archers warning

Most strains of E. coli found on the hands and phones are not likely to cause major ill-health, although listeners of "The Archers" will know that Clarrie Grundy became an unwitting carrier of the bacteria, leading to a number of children being hospitalised in the fictional county of Borsetshire.

Dr Curtis explained that they were using E. coli as a marker for the presence of faecal matter.

She said: "Campylobacter and Salmonella bacteria are much more likely to cause a gastric infection and could easily be passed on through faecal contamination."

So we are talking about poo, excrement - on mobile phones and fingers.

Hand washing technique

Why do so many people clearly not wash their hands with soap after a visit to the toilet? Perhaps they do, but are simply doing it wrong.

I remember having correct hand-washing technique described to me by the virologist Professor John Oxford.

He thought people didn't wash thoroughly enough, or long enough - two verses of Happy Birthday to you were suggested.

Perhaps there is also a confusion in some people's minds about dirt and germs. After all, there is plenty of research suggesting dirt can be good for you.

Since the late 1980s the "hygiene hypothesis" has argued that the lack of early childhood exposure to some germs may be linked to the rise in allergic diseases, by suppressing the development of the immune system. It's a much-debated theory.

But while letting your children - or your husband - play in the dirt may well be ok, they still need to wash their hands after the toilet. Or after handling raw meat and poultry.

Big killer

You simply have to look to the developing world to see the devastating effects of poor hygiene. Diarrhoeal disease remains one of the world's biggest killers.

While hand-washing may help prevent a nasty stomach bug here, in poorer countries it can save lives.

The survey from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is timed to publicise Global Handwashing Day on 15 October.

It is an annual event which promotes hand-hygiene, the cheapest and most effective way of preventing infection by bacteria and viruses.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    My first thought was to stop shaking hands with people, but apparently that doesn't help. I already stopped using door handles in public places years ago. It's safer to kick the door in!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Toilets in England are fundamentally flawed, unlike Asia there is no 'bum-hose' to wash yourself down after #2s. England; sit there tearing off sheet after sheet of paper and smear faeces around your buttocks, absolutely filthy. Cambodia; I have the luxury of the bum hose for a good clean, then some tissue to dry down - and then I wash my hands; remind me which is the developing nation?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    So the 'sample size in each city was small, so the variations between them could be a statistical anomaly' and yet either the reporter or the researcher had the audacity to draw conclusions - what nonsense! If the results weren't ststistically valid then I suggest the researcher repeats her study correctly, i.e. more data, before drawing un-scientific conclusions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I only ever use 1 phone, so the other 5 out of 6 don't affect me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I tried to wash my mobile as the article suggested, but I think the spin cycle damaged it. What should I do now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Perhaps my own opinion, but a poorly written article. Given admittedly "so the variations between them could be a statistical anomaly" you allow generalisations from the researchers.

    And what is the correct hand-washing technique you describe? I want to know, apart from singing "happy birthday"!

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    It's only an assumption that the presence of E. coli indicates faecal matter. It's a big leap to assert that people aren't washing their hands. There are other sources for E. coli. If they'd done a control study, testing phones used by people who washed their hands after using the toilet, maybe they could have narrowed down the sources for definite. Poor science, leading to poor journalism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Isn't it the case that other than for those preparing food, germs will only usually be transferred to the body if one eats using one's unwashed fingers? Holding clean cutlery only by the handles circumvents much!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Even if an individual washes his or her hands thoroughly, they rapidly get contaminated again because they touch the doorknob that has been touched by all the people who didn't.

    I'm not saying this to say "don't bother washing your hands because no-one else does", I'm trying to raise awareness so that people who avoid touching things and shaking hands with people aren't viewed as freaks.


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