Cell phone scare: What really lies on the surface?

(File photo/MGN)

By Jon

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. (WCIV) -- Cell phones: We carry them in our pockets and purses every day.

But have you ever wondered what else those mobile devices might be carrying?

The answer: Microscopic germs and bacteria that lurk on your screen. And they could make you sick.{}

Time and time again, we pick up that call without a second thought, but by simply saying "Hello," you could also be{}greeting a host of bacteria.

Throughout the course of the daily grind, our bodies can come into contact with tiny microbes like MRSA, Staph, strep and e-coli bacteria. Those microbes are mostly found on the hands and when you touch something, like the touch screens on our phones, you could be cross-contaminating.

It's a disturbing problem unbeknownst to many in our tech-savvy society.

"I've never really thought about it, honestly," said{}College of Charleston student Reagan Mann.

Mann works in a day care center and comes in constant contact with germs and other harmful bacteria but rarely considers how those germs can end up on her iPhone.

Fellow college student Al Juscus admits he doesn't give it much thought, either.

"Now that I think about it," he said, looking down at his smart phone, "it is really gross."

So just how dirty is the average cell phone?

ABC News 4 took two smart phones to MUSC's microbiology lab to talk to the experts and find out what really lies on the surface of your cell.

Microbiologist Michael Schmidt has made a career of studying infection. He is currently working on developing the next generation of glass for cell phones and experimenting with copper inside hospitals to keep infection rates down, and he knows just how fast they can spread.

"I know what's on there and it keeps me up at night," he said.

Schmidt agreed to take the test phones and swab for three common types of bacteria: MRSA, Staphylococcus, and e-coli. Microbe samples from each of the phones were lifted, isolated and placed in Petri dishes. The samples were then placed in a incubator kept at 98.6 degrees to replicate the human body.

Over the course of three days, Schmidt saw the bacteria multiply, producing nickel-sized deposits.

The results confirmed traces of bacteria, and potentially harmful microbes can live, breed and be found on just about every cell phone. But lucky for us, the human body has a remarkable defense shield.

"The good news is you have skin," Schmidt said. "The reason phones aren't killing us is because our skin is intact.{} The danger becomes when you pass your phone to someone else or you use your phone in the wrong location where it may be inoculated with someone else's microbes."

One of the most common places where that can happen is in the bathroom, where germs and bacteria can easily become airborne.

Schmidt recommends you take an extra few seconds when using the restroom to practice good hygiene.

"Whenever you flush make sure that the lid is closed," he said. "It prevents the aerosols from moving through the restroom."

According to WebMD and other published surveys, close to{}one in every{}six phones is contaminated with some sort of e-coli bacteria. If ingested into the body, e-coli can cause fever, vomiting and diarrhea.{}

With more and more people using smart phones while in the bathroom, then putting those same phones up to their mouths, the risk for infection can increase

"Every time you see someone using a phone in a public bathroom, you should really take notice and say 'Don't do that,'" Schmidt said. "It's pretty spooky, there is a bunch of splashing and that is why our dear darling mothers say, 'always wash your hands.'"

So what about our test phones? Did our little experiment yield some revolting results?

"The answer is no" Schmidt said. "Because the two phones came from individuals (who) look like they know how to use the phones. They weren't especially greasy, they weren't especially dirty so its likely those phones are just mere extensions of their hands and it appears they routinely wash their hands."

But there is a simple way to keep both those phonies and hands in ship shape.

The solution to pollution is dilution, Schmidt said.

"What you want to do is wipe them down. Microfiber clothes are great, because they effectively have little fibrous fingers in them that can lift the microbes off of the glass. {}What you don't want to use is a harsh solvent, which can hurt the glass."

It's an easy solution to make sure you and your phone don't pick up and unwanted microbes or bacteria.