Germs in School: What You'll Wish You Didn't Know

An article on reported on an investigation of germs in kids’ lunch boxes…and elsewhere around schools. This story will make you want to get out the extra-strength disinfecting scrub!

Dr. LeAnn Jaykus, a food science professor at North Carolina State University (NCSU), and her team examined the level of contamination in children’s lunch boxes, and on food trays in fast food restaurants and mall food courts. What were they looking for? (Are you sure you want to know?)

“We’re looking for evidence of fecal contamination, the presence of listeria, which is an indication of some sort of environmental contamination, and the presence of staphylococcus, which can come from mucous membranes or hands, or things like that,” said Dr. LeAnn Jaykus.

According to the results, the trays were clean, with no evidence of contamination from any of the measured microbes. Obviously, the restaurants did a good job of keeping the trays sanitary. The lunch boxes, however, were another matter—they were “fun” from a germ-hunter’s point of view, which means that they were a parent’s nightmare. Specifically:

  • Many of the lunch boxes looked dirty, with visible mold and caked-on food.
  • Half the lunch boxes tested positive for low levels of staphylococcus.
  • 3% of the lunch boxes tested positive for listeria.
  • 15% of lunch boxes had evidence of fecal contamination. This is the most worrisome result, and most potentially dangerous.

Dr. Jaykus says the likely source is kids who don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom. She suggests parents talk with their children about proper hygiene and wash their lunch boxes every week.

Good advice! (shudder)

Other High-Contamination Areas

As long as your mind is already thinking about germs, here are a few more areas to keep in mind.

Surfaces with highest concentration of germ contamination include:

1. Gas pump handles (71% of surfaces tested had a high level of germs)
2. Mailbox handles (68%)
3. Escalator rails (43%)
4. ATM buttons (41%)
5. Parking meters/kiosks (40%)
6. Crosswalk buttons (35%)
7. Vending machine buttons (35%)

(Source: Kimberly Clark study/

We get sick from bacteria (and viruses) when we get germs on our hands, then touch our eyes, mouth, or nose. So touching a contaminated surface isn’t what makes you sick…it’s the transfer of germs from your hand to those other parts of your body. To avoid the possibility of getting sick, some people take to pressing buttons with elbows, and opening doors with a tissue or with a sleeve pulled down over their hands. Although it seems late, we’re still in flu season. So stay healthy everyone!

To read the full article on, click here:  Tests find mold, fecal bacteria

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