Switch to low bandwidth version Close

Contamination of mobile phones and hands revealed for Global Handwashing Day

Friday, 14 October 2011

Global Handwashing Day is a worldwide campaign that aims to transform the action of washing hands with soap into an automatic behaviour, deeply set in people's daily routines. In the UK and worldwide, initiatives and events are held to promote the practice in homes, schools, workplaces and communities.

According to researchers at the School, the importance of handwashing with soap is now more relevant than ever after their study revealed hands and mobile phones were contaminated with bacteria, including dangerous Escherichia coli.

According to the new research, one in six mobile phones in Britain is contaminated with faecal matter (E. coli) and experts say the most likely reason for the potentially harmful bacteria festering on so many gadgets is people failing to wash their hands properly with soap after going to the toilet.

The findings of the UK-wide study by scientists from LSHTM and Queen Mary, University of London also reveal a tendency among Britons to lie about their hygiene habits.

Although 95% of people interviewed said they washed their hands with soap where possible, 92% of phones and 82% of hands had bacteria on them.

Even more worryingly, 16% of hands and 16% of phones were found to harbour bacteria of a faecal origin. Harmful E. coli is associated with stomach upsets and has been implicated in serious cases of food poisoning such as the fatal O157 outbreak in Germany in June.

Hygiene expert and UK campaign leader for Global Handwashing Day Dr Val Curtis, said: "This study provides more evidence that some people still don't wash their hands properly, especially after going to the toilet.  I hope the thought of having E. coli on their hands and phones encourages them to take more care in the bathroom – washing  your hands with soap is such a simple thing to do but there is no doubt it saves lives."

For the study, researchers travelled to 12 cities and took 390 samples from mobile phones and hands and analysed in the lab to find out the type and number of germs lurking there. They also asked participants a series of questions about their handwashing habits.

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%). However, actual levels of bacteria increased the further north the scientists went, the dirtiest city being Glasgow, where average bacterial levels on phones and hands were found to be nine times higher than in Brighton, reinforcing a North/South divide. The scientists also found those who had bacteria on their hands were three times as likely to have bacteria on their phone.

Dr Ron Cutler, of Queen Mary, University of London, said: "Our analysis revealed some interesting results from around the UK. While some cities did much better than others, the fact that E. coli was present on phones and hands in every location shows this is a nationwide problem.  People may claim they wash their hands regularly but the science shows otherwise."

Faecal bacteria can survive on hands and surfaces for hours at a time, especially in warmer temperatures away from sunlight; it is easily transferred by touch to door handles, food and even mobile phones. From there, the germs can be picked up by other people. Every year, 3.5m children under the age of five are killed by pneumonia and diarrhoeal diseases – and the simple action of washing hands with soap is one of the most effective ways of preventing these illnesses. In developed countries, handwashing with soap helps to prevent the spread of viral infections, such as norovirus, rotavirus and influenza.

The UK campaign is coordinated by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine with support from GlaxoSmithKline, Initial Washroom Solutions, Sanofi Pasteur MSD, School Councils UK, Queen Mary, University of London, The Ideas Foundation and Wellcome Trust. http://www.globalhandwashingday.org.uk

UK maps and tables of data from the study are available as follows:

Figure 1: Proportion of phones with E. coliFigure 2: Proportion of hands with E. coliFigure 3: Levels of all bacteria found on hands and phones

Listen to the Global Handwashing Day: Faecal Bacteria Found On Mobile Phones podcast

Share this page
Back to top