You might flush toilets with your feet and go loco on sanitiser after a lengthy journey on public transport, but did you know there’s a veritable petri dish of malevolent bacteria swimming in your very own pockets? Case in point: In a karmically appropriate cautionary tale, in 2012, a Ugandan man contracted Ebola from a cell phone he stole from a quarantined patient in the the isolation ward at Kagadi Hospital. And a study published in the 2009 journal “Annals of Clinical Microbiology and Antimicrobials” revealed that of the 200 hospital staff members’ phones tested, 94.5% were found to be contaminated by some type of bacteria.
“Nobody ever cleans or disinfects their phone, so the germs and bacteria just keep building up,” explains Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, adding that the most common germs found on phones are E. coli, influenza and MRSA. But lest you think it’s only your phone that’s hosting a microscopic orgy, we asked Dr. Gerba to shed some light on how infested the rest of the contents of your pockets are, too.
The germs on your pound notes
Because paper money has a porous surface, notes act like sponges and pick up a large amount of bacteria: 90 percent of paper money in your wallet has faecal matter on it right now, while a 2002 report in the Southern Medical Journal found bacteria considered pathogenic (potentially disease-causing to hospitalized or immunocompromised hosts) on 94% of dollar bills tested. That’s because paper money gets around: OnStride Financial estimated that on average, a British £20 note changes hands 2,328 times over its 113-month lifespan. Viruses and bacteria can live on most surfaces for about 48 hours, but paper money makes for a particularly hospitable environment and can reportedly transport a live flu virus for up to 17 days, according to the same study.
The germs on your credit cards
Credit cards are regularly swiping their way through germs. A study conducted by microbiology students at St. Petersburg College in Florida found half of all credit cards sampled at local malls, stores and hospitals tested positive for MRSA. And a study carried out by researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine revealed one in 10 bank cards to be contaminated with faecal organisms.
The germs on your wallet
Given the filth living on our cash and credit cards, it should come as no surprise that researchers at the University of Mauritius found several kinds of bacteria when they swabbed the outside of 145 men’s and women’s purses and wallets. The most common types of bacteria were Micrococcus, Staphylococcus, and Bacillus, which typically grow on dead or decaying material. Premium money-carriers pay off, however: Leather wallets and purses had significantly less bacteria on them than synthetic materials did.
The germs on your keys and coins
The fact that many keys are made of brass—a copper alloy—offers some protection, because it’s naturally antibacterial. Likewise, since metals—particularly nickel—often kill many of the bacteria, coins don’t have nearly the amount of germs as their paper counterparts.
The germs on your phone
Back to where we started: Each square inch of your cell phone contains roughly 25,000 germs, which is way more than the number of germs found on, say, a toilet seat (1,201) or kitchen counter (1,736), since both of those are washed regularly (we hope). Gerba says that since we use our phones frequently, they remain warm, creating the ideal breeding ground for bacteria. “With the advent of touchscreen phones, the same part of the phone you touch with your fingertips is pressed right up against your face and mouth, upping your chances of infection,” he adds.
So what’s a guy to do interrupt this pocket germ party? Remember that antibacterial wipes and disinfectants can damage or scratch your phone, so it’s better to fill a spray bottle halfway with distilled or bottled water and the other half with readily available 70% isopropyl alcohol. Lightly spray the solution on a lint-free cloth (like the kind you use on glasses), and rub it all over your phone, credit cards, wallet, keys, and anywhere else that seems suspect.
Even then, maybe don’t put any of that stuff in your mouth.