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Matthew Edlund, M.D. Headshot

Cell Phones: A Biological Part of You

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Welcome to the human ecosystem.

You're an ecosystem -- a complicated one. Your cell phone is just one component of it -- and an inescapable part of your biology.

Fortunately, it's one you can help control.

A recent U.K. survey from 12 separate districts found bacteria on 92 percent of cell phones -- and only 82 percent of human hands. Fecal bacteria were found on one sixth of cell phones and human hands.

The highest number of feculent cell phones was found in London: 28 percent.

Patients, Visitors and Bugs:

In May, a Turkish study looked at the cell phones from hospital patients and visitors. Forty percent had potentially nasty pathogenic bacteria, including stuff like MRSA and highly resistant E.Coli. The antibiotic resistant bugs were not found on the cell phones of health care workers, whose bacterial percentages were about half.

MRSA and clostridium difficile kill about 15,000-20,000 Americans a year.

What's Inside Your Body:

Consider:

1. There are at least 100 trillion organisms living inside you that are not human; some estimates are there's 100 trillion bacteria just in your gut.
2. At least 8 percent of the human genome comes from viruses.
3. Estimates of the number of non-human individual genes in the gut alone -- 3.3 million to 9 million. That's at least 150 times as many individual genes as your human genome.
4. Gut bacteria have been implicated in many human diseases -- including depression.

Promise of the Ecosystem:

This year's physics Nobel prize went to astronomers who demonstrated that 96 percent of the universe we live in is dark energy and dark matter -- about which we know practically nothing. Human biology is a similar site of ignorance, where the implications of our ecosystem and our very rapid regeneration and internal turnover have been regularly neglected for decades.

However, this means that we may be able to treat diseases and disorders more effectively. If lactobacilli like we find in yogurt can prevent stress and the mouse form of depression, just think we might do when we figure out our ecosystem better.

Treat Your Cell Phone as Part of Your Hand:

People don't use their cell phones -- they like them a lot. So it's time to start treating your cell phone as an extension of you -- not just your brain, but your hand.

Hand bacteria will get onto your cell phone easily. Unlike wallets and keys, you hand cell phones to other people. You bump them. They go with you pretty much everywhere -- including into bed -- which includes your bed partner and perhaps children and pets.

So take the time to wash your cell phone as you wash your hands.

A Few Rules for Your Cell Phone:

1. Wash your hands properly -- as suggested by the CDC. Wash before and after meals and going to the bathroom -- at a minimum. Lather the suds and rub your hands together for 20 seconds -- you can hum "Happy Birthday" to estimate the time correctly. Clean hands mean cleaner cell phones means cleaner hands -- and less infections.
2. Use alcohol -- rubbing or wipes -- on your cell phone once a day. You can do this when you wash your hands in the morning on waking or after a meal.
3. Clean your kids' cell phone once a day -- and teach them how to do it.
4. Wash your cell phone holders, too. Plastic and rubber ones are easier than leather holders.
5. Viruses also go on cell phones. So wipe your dry eyes and your nose with tissues -- not your fingers. Colds are a lot more common than viral infections.

Bottom Line:

Cell phones change economies, communication, education, human brains and inner-human ecology.

Treat them with respect -- as biologically part of your hand. Keep them clean.

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