Bacteria found in feces is probably in your iced drink, on your phone and even your purse, experts tell Moneyish. But don’t panic yet
You deal with more crap than you realize every day.
We all suspect that high-traffic public surfaces like subway poles, railings and door knobs are covered in toilet germs.
But recent reports reveal that the coffee or tea you’re sipping – and even the cash you used to pay for it – also carry bacteria found in feces.
Research shows that up to 90% of mugs in employee kitchens are coated with dangerous germs, and 20% of these same cups actually carry fecal matter, according to a study carried out by Charles Gerba, a professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona.
Gerba found that the reason our mugs are saturated in all kinds of bad bacteria is due to the sponges in the communal kitchen which, when rarely replaced, become a host for germs that end up in our drinks.
Outside the office is just as bad. The BBC’s consumer show “Watchdog” tested drinks at McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King in the U.K., and found traces of fecal coliform bacteria in the iced drinks at each chain.
Another BBC investigation last month also discovered iced drinks from the U.K.’s most popular coffee chains, including Costa Coffee, Starbucks and Caffe Nero, contained traces of such bugs in their ice cubes.
Ice can get easily contaminated, either from water laced with fecal coliforms, or from bacteria getting on whatever utensil is scooping the ice if an employee doesn’t wash his or her hands. And the freezer actually preserves the bacteria, rather than killing it.
An earlier report swabbed $1 bills circulating in NYC, and found more than 100 different strains of bacteria on the dirty money.
It gets worse.
- The CDC reports that poop in public pools helped double outbreaks of the cryptosporidium parasite between 2014 and 2016, which is spread when people swallow water contaminated with diarrhea or feces. “It is not easily killed by chlorine and can survive up to 10 days in properly treated water,” the CDC warned.
- The dumbbells in your gym are dirtier than your toilet seat. A study conducted last year noted that free weights are crawling with 62 times more bacteria than public toilets, including gram-positive cocci that can result in skin infections and sepsis.
- And before you press your smartphone against your face, consider this 2011 study that found one in six U.K. mobile phones is contaminated with fecal matter.
- Oh, and your purse picks up crap when you place it on the floor between your feet on the subway or in a bathroom stall (use the hooks, ladies). “About a third of them have fecal bacteria on them,” Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist, told the “Today” show.
So what’s going on? Well, everyone poops, so everyone is a potential carrier of fecal bacteria.
“We are bathed, as a society, in human feces,” said Dr. Philip Tierno, a clinical professor of Microbiology and Pathology at NYU School of Medicine. “People spread whatever they have on their hands – like feces, which can be transmitted very easily.”
He added that that fecal matter can survive for days or weeks on surfaces, depending on the type of bacteria, “so washing your hands is imperative – before you eat or drink anything, and before you touch your face.”
As for the contaminated iced drinks in the BBC report, it’s possible the water being frozen into ice cubes was contaminated. Or perhaps fecal matter contaminated the ice machines, or utensils that dish out the ice.
But Dr. Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist and associate professor at North Carolina State University, told Moneyish that he is skeptical of the BBC report, because it didn’t identify which strains of bacteria were found, nor whether any of the pathogens were still alive.
“What this report is showing is that bacteria is there, not that it’s making anyone sick,” he assured. We’re exposed to bacteria all day, every day, and most of it doesn’t sicken us. “And in the specific cases [like E. coli] where it does make us sick, it’s thousands and thousands of bacteria from feces that cause illness,” he added. “Trace amounts of bacteria are not going to make you sick.”
You can protect yourself with basic hygiene, like washing your hands properly and often with soap and hot water, especially after leaving a bathroom and before touching your face.
Regularly wipe down your home surfaces, office surfaces, your phone and your bag with disinfectant.
And make peace with the fact that poop is everywhere.
“If you look for feces, you’re gonna find it,” said Dr. Chapman. “In fact, it would be a bigger surprise to me if someone did a study looking for bacteria like this, and they didn’t find it.”
This story has previously published on July 1, and has been updated to include a new BBC report.
© 2018 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved