GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - We may need to think more about the hygiene of one of our most prized possessions, our cell phones.
KARE 11 tested ten devices, and our results revealed that your cell phone or iPad could carry more bacteria than a bathroom door handle, or toilet seat.
"Oh no," said Nellie Perez, of Northeast Minneapolis, an obsessed owner of an iPhone 4. "I have to have it on me at all times. I Google, I play games, I do Facebook, and Instagram."
At KARE 11, Bea Chang understands the high tech hang-up. She's in charge of social media, and spends her day swiping several screens, and wondered how clean - or dirty - her devices are.
"My iPad, my kids use every single day. They watch their videos on here," said Chang. "I give this to my 2 year old and 5 year old, and I wash their hands before they eat, after they come out of the bathroom, but I give them this phone and I don't even think about that I have exposed this phone to."
We asked John Delahanty from New Ulm based Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories to help us see what germs live on Chang's iPad, and we also swabbed nine cell phones, starting with some high profile phones at KARE 11.
"I am scared," said Belinda Jensen, as we swabbed her phone. "I have two little kids and a very hairy dog."
For equal exposure, we tested phones from Randy Shaver, Julie Nelson, and Eric Perkins too.
"I would be surprised if there was much on the glass surface. You don't expect glass to grow bacteria or retain bacteria. But, the rubber case is more porous. The cover is more likely to hold bacteria than the glass surface," predicted Delahanty.
A few days later at Minnesota Valley Testing Laboraties, microbiologist Gloria Anderson found no major gross out factor - no ecoli, fecal matter or harmful staph - but she pointed out significant bacterial colonies that cropped up after two days of our sample incubation.
"It's a losing battle because your hands have so much bacteria and you are always touching your phone, unless you constantly wash your hands," said Anderson.
The bacteria from an aerobic plate count test measured from a very low 90 colony forming units-- all the way to the nearly 100 times that amount, at 8900 colony forming units.
"They turned out to maybe higher levels l than I expected," said Delahanty.
Just one of the samples tested positive for coliform, a family of bacteria that can be an indicator of illness. Anderson says it's not harmful, but also not a surprise considering the sample came from a nail salon, where hands carry this common bacteria.
We also tested a phone mid-workout at a Minnetonka gym. Turns out, Chang's iPad had higher bacteria levels than phones at the nail salon and the gym. Her iPad bacteria measured at 5,000 colony forming units.
"I feel really bad about that. They use this more than anything. I know that the case is probably the issue because it is a case that is porous, and can get things in there," said Chang.
And, that could be the case. The owner of a tobacco shop had one of the cleanest samples, at the low 90 colony forming units. His phone was the only without a cover.
"So if you are a germaphobe, maybe you want to get rid of your cover," said Delahanty.
Julie Nelson's phone had a cover but was also just as pristine, with the same low amount of bacteria. Erik Perkins' cell phone had low amounts as well.
Randy Shaver's phone, however, had one of the highest bacteria counts, second only to Belinda Jensen. Her phone tested with more germs than all the rest, with the highest measurement of 8900 colony forming units. To compare, the bathroom door tested at 940 colony forming units and the toilet seat at 6100 colony forming units.
"I have a kindergartner and a fourth grader and they constantly use my phone that must be the case," Jensen, adding that her phone is often floating in her purse. "I'll just be cleaning it more often or not having them use it as often."
At Minnesota Valley Testing Laboratories, Anderson said lifestyle, like a family with kids, could contribute to a higher bacteria count.
University of Minnesota Epidemiologist Craig Hedberg, PhD, stresses the levels we found shouldn't be a concern, especially if you wash your hands. He tracks nasty food-borne illnesses that put these microscopic measurements in perspective.
"Typically the types of bacteria that you would associate with skin, the levels you found are not alarming in any way," said Hedberg.
Hedberg says he'd likely find the same bacteria on his own phone, adding that he just usually polishes the surface of his phone on his shirt, as you would an apple. Hedberg says it's possible, if you pass around phones, sharing some sort of respiratory bug, you can pass an illness like a cold.
"If you give your phone to a child that sick or anyone that's sick, you touch it, and put it to your face and eyes, you could spread a cold or viruses that way," agreed Anderson, who analyzed our swabs.
"But, it wouldn't be high on my list of things to be worried about," said Hedberg, who said the bacteria levels on our swabbed cell phones wouldn't even be a red flag if they were found during a restaurant inspection. He says he's much more concerned other germ laden items, like cutting boards in kitchens.
In our research, KARE 11 found some antimicrobial phone cases on the market, but did not test them for effectiveness. We also consulted some cell phone manufacturers for advice oncleaning phones.
Blackberry says it doesn't have any guidance on the matter.
Apple says you should use a damp lint free cloth to wipe down products - and avoid sprays and cleaners.
Some of the KARE 11 team just may be following that advice.
"I have never cleaned my phone once, but now I will, just in case you come around again," laughed Shaver.