Illustrations by Ryan Garcia


How to Clean Your (Truly Gross, Germy) Phone

At least they're your germs. Imagine what's crawling on the plastic bins at airport security

By Mifi Purvis, '93 BA

December 10, 2018 •

A fomite is any surface that can host and spread infectious organisms. Like that greasy, pathogen-covered kingdom of germs you carry everywhere: your phone. You use it on lunch break, on the toilet, in bed catching up on Netflix. Don't lie, you can't remember the last time you cleaned it.

"A shared touch screen is an active pathway for organisms," says Nicholas Ashbolt, a professor in the School of Public Health. The surface pathogens that make you sick are mostly from the norovirus family, transmitted via the fecal-(phone)-oral route, causing diarrhea and vomiting. Maybe your brother, with his questionable hygiene, pulled up a Google map. Or your preschooler - face it, he's a nose-picker - played Candy Crush. Fear not, here's your guide to cleaning your phone: 1) wash your hands, 2) wipe your phone and its case with an alcohol swab. But what of other fomites?


In the 2003 Hong Kong SARS outbreak, sewer stacks in highrise buildings spread the respiratory illness through dry U-bends in bathroom floors. Coupled with air-extraction fans, they shared germs via aerosolized sewage. And the U-bend in an average bathroom sink is an uncleanable maw, circulating aerosolized germs every time you use it. Ashbolt says a better bet for germ control is a vacuum flush sink.

Airport security bins

"Have you ever seen those being cleaned?" Ashbolt asks. Shoes, phones and keys go in them and thousands of people handle the bins every day. Your best bet is self-care; pack hand sanitizer or wipes in your carry-on to use as soon as you are through security. (And those alcohol wipes are handy to clean the armrests and tray once you're on the plane.)


"The least controlled point of our drinking water plumbing is the plastic hose that connects to your shower," Ashbolt says. Legionella bacteria live there in, well, legions. Ashbolt's advice? Run the water in your home or hotel shower head through a towel for a minute before showering. And take heart: there are many more benign and beneficial microbes than harmful ones living in, on and around us.

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