Germs, germs, germs

I’m usually not big on New Year’s resolutions.   I do periodically resolve to change something about my life:  I might vow to eat less refined flour on, say, May 19th; or to do daily Kegel exercises starting on November 12th.   I might find it convenient to abandon those efforts on May 26th and November 19th, respectively.

But this year I decided to make an actual New Year’s Resolution, on actual New Year’s Day:  I vowed to clean my cellphone once a week.  This will be a departure from my previous practice, which involved cleaning my cellphone approximately once a decade or when I got peanut butter on the screen, whichever came first.   

It is amazing, given these previously slovenly cellphone cleaning practices, that I am even still alive.   It turns out that our cellphones are virtual petrie dishes for nasty microbes of all sorts.   Come to find out that the median cellphone harbors more than 17,000 bacterial 165 RNA gene copies, including pathogenic microbes with scary Latin names like Neisseria flavescens.   This is according to a study from the journal Germs, a publication produced by people who are probably not much fun as dinner companions.

The media, conventional and social, have ample coverage of just how revolting our cellphones are.  Consider:


Toilets are, in fact, the unit of measure in most such studies, many of which are conducted by a Prof. Charles Gerba, microbiologist at the University of Arizona (a university publication indicates that his nickname is "Dr. Germ").  Prof. Gerba is quoted thus:   "Mobile phones are now mobile germ devices.    You get a germ on your hand, and you use your phone. Then you go wash your hands later, but the germs are still on your phone."   Dr. Gerba disinfects his phone twice daily.  

I will definitely not be inviting Dr. Gerba to dinner at my house any time soon.  

Of course, the generally revolting nature of our immediate environment does not stop with cellphones!   Another one of Dr. Gerba’s studies declared that 72% of shopping cart handles harbor fecal coliform bacteria, and 50% harbor e. coli.  Purses and handbags, too, harbor more bacteria than toilet seats.   And don't even start on office desks!   The average office worker's desk is home to 400 times as much bacteria as a toilet seat!

All of which leads to one obvious conclusion:

ALWAYS STORE YOUR CELLPHONE ON THE TOILET SEAT.  It's the only hygienic approach.

Of course, the fault lies not in our phones, but in ourselves.  The average cellphone is touched 3,000 times a day – by people like me, who are – get this – HUMAN, and therefore completely disgusting.   We are factories of filth.    A study by a team at the University of Colorado at Boulder found that the average human hand houses 150 different species of bacteria.   Aren’t we gross?

Unless we’re not.    While home for the holidays, my college-senior-daughter, Julia, declared that the Mongols never bathed, and also never got sick.   My research assistant (Google) was not able to fully verify this claim.   I did find quite a few websites that declared that the Mongols never bathed, for religious reasons involving easily-provoked water dragons.    Google had little to say about the personal hygiene of Mongol-in-Chief Attila the Hun, except that he may have died of typhus, which would tend to undercut the never-bathing-keeps-you-healthy hypothesis.  Unless Attila died after being thrown from his horse, which would definitely be a more badass way to go.  Either way, Attila’s stand-offish approach to personal hygiene is only one of many reasons why I would not choose him as a dinner date.

Attila’s demise notwithstanding, there are plenty of folks currently preaching the gospel of bathing less.   This post in the Harvard Medical School blog declares that daily showering is likely more than is necessary.  Another one on Healthline decries that daily showering can actually strip your skin of important oils; two or three times a week may be sufficient.  And then there’s this piece in the Atlantic, written by actual medical doctor James Hamblin, describing how he has given up bathing entirely.

Actually, I think it would be kind of interesting to have Dr. Hamblin over to dinner.   But only in the summer, when we could eat on the porch.   If nothing else, it would give me the opportunity to ask Dr. Hamblin how often he sanitizes his cellphone.

In sum: we are either revolting germ factories who are infecting ourselves and everyone around us with our slovenly ways; or we are obsessives whose compulsion to constantly clean is destroying the planet’s water supply and giving ourselves flakey skin.  Who’s to say?  

There’s really only one thing I know for sure: if Attlia did expire of typhus, he didn’t get it from a cellphone.