Nasty Bugs Lurking on Your Cell Phone

Tim Locke

October 14, 2011

October 14, 2011 — The next time you reach for your cell phone, consider this: A new study found that 92% of cell phones in the U.K. have bacteria on them - including E. coli -- because people aren't washing their hands after going to the bathroom.

The E. coli came from fecal bacteria, which can survive on hands and surfaces for hours.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Queen Mary, University of London looked at cell phones in 12 cities in the U.K.

They took 390 samples from cell phones and hands, which were then analyzed for germs. People were also asked about their hand hygiene.

Phone Filth and Other Facts

The study found:

  • 92% of phones had bacteria on them.

  • 82% of hands had bacteria on them.

  • 16% of hands and 16% of phones had E. coli bacteria, which is found in feces.

However, 95% of people said they washed their hands with soap where possible, which suggests we have a tendency to lie about our hygiene habits.

"We're pretty shocked to find the vast majority of mobile phones -- 92% -- had bacteria all over them. Often large numbers of bacteria,” said hygiene expert Val Curtis, PhD, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

"That isn't necessarily something that we should worry about, but what is worrying is that 16% of mobile phones had E. coli on them. E. coli comes from human [and animal] feces,” she says. "That means that people with dirty hands are not washing their hands after using the toilet, for example. Then they're handling their mobile phones.”

It’s not just cell phones that the dirty hands are touching, Curtis says.

"They're also touching other surfaces as well,” she says. “They're spreading fecal bugs on everything they touch really."

Toilet Texting?

Is there a more worrying way the phones are getting contaminated -- by people using them while they're in the bathroom?

"We didn't ask people whether they'd used their phones in the toilet. That might be something that would be interesting to study," Curtis says. "People do tend to use their mobile phones everywhere they go. Perhaps we should discourage their use in the toilet."

So is having unclean hands a modern-day problem linked to our new technology?

"Humans have had infections since before they were human. It's a really ancient problem," she says. "Bugs are evolutionary masters at getting from person to person.”

Anything that you touch can become a source of infection, Curtis says. So hand washing after using the toilet is crucial.

Excuses, Excuses

Curtis says people can be quick to excuse their nasty habits.

"They say that they're in a hurry, they say that the water's too cold. People don't actually feel that their hands have got contaminated.

"Everyone knows they should do it, so it's not education that's the answer. We need to find other ways to remind people that it's disgusting that their hands are dirty and their hands get smelly and foul after the toilet,” she says. "Disgusting people with the state of their hands is probably the most effective way of getting people to wash their hands."


London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and Queen Mary, University of London.

News release, Global Handwashing day.

Val Curtis, PhD, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.


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