A hot bed of germ-y journalism (aka germs on gadgets)

By Grant Jacobs 16/10/2010

’Apple stores a hot bed of germs’ the title of the Sydney Morning Herald article screams.

Why only Apple stores?

The photo legend opens with ’Grubby gadgets’.


We’re told Apple devices are surfaces to spread bacteria from one person to another.

What about all those other devices?

Laptop keyboards and trackpads. Aren’t they in every computer store? Cellular phones? Lots of people trying those out too. Electronic book readers? Kids games? Can’t stop the little ones giving ’em a whirl, eh? …

Hold on, hold on.

Y’know all those places where they don’t have automatic doors? Y’know, the ones where everyone turns the same handle. Or holds on to hand rails of escalators? What about pressing buttons in lifts? Pushing around supermarket trolleys? Or what about pulling open the public toilet door?

The human microbiome. (Source: Supporting material from Costello et al., Science 326:1694, 2009. Hat-tip: Carl Zimmer.)
The human microbiome. (Source: Supporting material from Costello et al., Science 326:1694, 2009. Hat-tip: Carl Zimmer.)

(An aside. Seriously now: good incentive to wash your hands after going to the toilet here. Everyone opens that toilet stall door, or pushes that flush button, before washing their hands.)

Hang on another minute.

You are covered in bacteria. All over you. (How else do they get onto the glass screens in the first place?) You’re not just covered in them either, you’re full of them. Where did you get them from?

Some of them live on you: for these organisms, you’re their native habitat. Some come from the surfaces in your house, the dust in the car, the soil in your garden, …

(An orchestra strikes up in the background, a blend of high drama and Monty Python.)

… the rivers, the lakes. From the mountains to the seas. In each and every pore and crevice.

(Music fades out.)

C’mon journalists. Get cranking. It’s the biggest story ever.

The entire surface of the whole planet is full of bacteria!!!

What a scoop.

It’s a Pulitzer in the waiting.

Don’t miss it.

OK, OK. You get it.

This whole thing is yet another media beat-up, a stitch up.

Yes, there is an element of truth in it: all good beat-ups need that.

Let’s start back at the beginning. Part of this seems to originate from the New York Daily News, targeting only Apple stores

The News used medical swabs to covertly collect samples from two iPads in the midtown store and the Meatpacking District location on 14th St. They were then tested for culturable bacteria by the New Jersey-based EMSL Analytical Inc.

Their article is replete with scare quotes. Great entertaining stuff. One-eyed, of course.

Moving on to the more recent local take, the article quotes Professor Peter Collignon

“You wouldn’t have hundreds of people using the same glass or cup, but theoretically if hundreds of people share the same keyboard or touch pad, then effectively that’s what you’re doing,”

While I get the gist of what he means, this isn’t like-against-like comparison to me. In the first the people are ingesting stuff from the same vessel by the hundred. Ugh. In the second they’re touching the same thing, they’re not eating off them. (Or drinking from them.)

Here’s a silly, but more direct comparison. To make the comparison fairer, let’s assume you’re right-handed and it’s your index finger that you mainly use for your cell phone, or whatever other device is essential to your life.

Now let’s say you go to the mall and rub right index fingers with, say, fifty people.

Instead of index finger -> device -> index finger, it’s a direct index finger to index finger contact. Fair comparison?

Now. Does that terrify you? You’re frightened you’re going to die of some vile disease because of rubbing index fingers? I doubt it. It is a little quirky – certainly – but not frightening. (It is the sort of thing I can imagine little kids doing amongst themselves, though!)

(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

A point of difference is that if someone was obviously seriously ill, because you can see them – unlike the case of the people who recently trailed the device – you’d likely avoid them.

But here’s the kicker for me: If you’re sensible you’d wash you hands before you licked your finger and held it up in the air to test for a breeze, or ate that roll you made for lunch. You do that anyway, right?

That’s the real point to me, nothing to do with Apple products or any other devices: practice normal hygiene.

If these these articles were serious, they’d be about normal hygiene practice, not pokes at one company’s products and stores.

But of course it’s fun to throw mud at companies you think are successful, or exploit the lazy niche offered to writers and publishers by computer fans are so sold on branding that they’re ‘anti’ to the other lot.

And it’s fun on a lazy weekend to poke back at the journalism!

So…, a question. How many of you wash your hands before you eat?

I bet it’s not as many as professors of infectious disease would like.


I really must check if anyone has reported lower transmission of disease since handshakes became less common. Rappa-style fist-clenchers take note? (Imagine it, we’ll have macho rappers acting like nervous hypochondriacs each time the greet their bro’s!)

The Sydney Morning Herald piece points to a recent research article* which reports that viruses can be transmitted via contact to glass. Fine, nothing startling there. It’s a bit of a red herring in the context it’s been placed in, though.

I haven’t missed that they make a token gesture at mentioning cell phones. The article and the many ’close replicas’** that have appeared around the world are certainly framed at targeting the one company’s devices.

* There’s links to other sources in the article, but not the original source for this science. What’s with that?

** I wouldn’t want to accuse anyone of plagiarism, but they are just shuffling words around.

Other articles at Code for life:

Finding platypus venom

Quick e-journalism tip: to copy the text not the spam link…

Thoughts towards a human brain neural connection map

Chemical-free alternatives (as seen on TV3)

Find transcription factor motifs in genomes better: add histone acetylation data

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