In their quest to culture every object on planet Earth, researchers have found that hospital elevator buttons are more contaminated with bacteria than restroom surfaces.
Of 120 randomly cultured elevator buttons, 73 (61%) grew bacteria. Washroom surfaces were cultured 96 times with 41 (43%) showing microbial growth.
As is customary with papers like this, the media sensationalized the findings with headlines like, “Why you should never ever touch that hospital elevator button.”
Most stories eventually mentioned the fact that the authors said the majority of bacteria found “had low pathogenicity,” but some, including Vox.com, mrsaidblog.com, newsok.com, and mynews13.com, did not. In fact, the MRSAID blog also confused the benign streptococcus found in this paper with the pathogen that causes strep throat.
I’ve written several posts about the culturing of various inanimate objects and pointed out that disease transmission has not been documented for almost all surfaces on which bacteria are found.
Like most papers in this genre, this one has some flaws. You can read the full text here.
It was published in an open-access journal called Open Medicine. It is not among the top 40 internal medicine journals listed by impact factor. In fact, it has no discernible impact factor at all and is not listed PubMed.
The title of the paper, “Elevator buttons as unrecognized sources of bacterial colonization in hospitals” overstates the case a bit.
Table 1 of the paper shows the types of bacteria found on both the elevator buttons and surfaces in the restrooms.
Pathogens were few. Multiple organisms were found in several instances accounting for some of the numerical discrepancies. I could not figure out how the percentages were calculated. In neither column did the percentages add up to 100%.
Samples of restroom surfaces were taken “a few months” after the elevator buttons were cultured. The authors conceded that this may have confounded the results.
Washroom sample swabs were taken from the exterior and interior entry-door handles, the privacy latch, and the toilet flusher. They did not swab toilet seats, which previous studies have shown are the gold standard to which all inanimate surfaces should be compared.
It may surprise you to learn that most of the bacteria found on elevator buttons and restroom surfaces can also normally be found ON YOUR HANDS!
Skeptical Scalpel is a retired surgeon and was a surgical department chairman and residency program director for many years. He is board-certified in general surgery and critical care and has re-certified in both several times. He blogs at SkepticalScalpel.blogspot.com and tweets as @SkepticScalpel.