Hiram College microbiologist's tests reveal staph, fecal bacteria on local students' lunch bags

CLEVELAND - An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation found infectious and disgusting germs could be lurking on your child's lunch bag.

Our experiment uncovered lunch bags with high levels of staph and fecal bacteria. More bags contained smaller amounts of the germs.

"It makes us want to prick our ears up a little bit and say, 'I need to be careful,'" said Dr. Brad Goodner, a microbiologist at Hiram College. Goodner agreed to partner with NewsChannel5's investigators to test local students' lunch bags to see what's growing on them.

Goodner and his students swabbed 103 lunch bags provided by three local elementary schools, "wiping around the areas where kids are most likely to touch," including the handle, front, back and bottoms of the cloth bags.

The swabs were brought back to Goodner's lab, where cells from the bags were extracted from the swabs and placed onto Petri dishes.

The good news: Overall, Goodner said the bags were fairly clean. 

The bad news: The bags did contain some scary germs that are sure to make parents cringe.

The most worrisome thing Goodner found was fecal bacteria. Twenty-eight of the lunch bags had that type of bacteria on them. Four of the bags contained levels high enough to make someone sick.

"Maybe Johnny or Sally had to go to the bathroom. Maybe didn't clean their hands as well as they should have... There's a chance that those organisms then get onto the lunchbox. And if they're on their lunchbox, they're potentially then making it into their food and then, therefore, ingesting them," he said.

"When they get into our system in a decent size does, more than one or two cells, but 50 or 100, maybe more, can cause you a problem, can cause you some gastric distress potentially leading to some diarrhea, vomiting, in some cases, maybe worse," he said. Goodner and his students also found another germ that should cause parents some concern.

Fifty-nine out of the 103 bags contained levels of staphylococcus, the bacteria responsible for staph infections, including the antibiotic-resistant strain known as MRSA. Two bags contained high levels of the bacteria.

"You don't even need that much that if you were able to get that in a dose into an open wound or were... dealing with a respiratory infection, (to) have something like this get into the wrong place at the wrong time could lead to a potential infection," he said.

Goodner also found low levels of micrococcus on many bags and a few bags with high levels of yeast.  He said the presence of those germs is not worrisome, but it does mean the bags are not as clean they should be.

"They are indicative of just the fact that my lunchbox is coming into contact with vegetation, whether it be part of my food or I'm setting it on the lawn as I wait for the bus," he said.

Micrococcus is a type of bacteria commonly found on human skin and is, in general, not considered a cause of infection, according to Goodner. Yeast is a type of fungi that is commonly found on food, especially fruit. It is not harmful.

The cloth fabric lunch bags that are popular among students are partially to blame for the numbers of germs on the bags, according to Goodner. He said the modern bags are better breeding grounds for bacteria than metal or plastic.

"It's definitely a very textured fabric and all those little grooves are places, as we know from any time we want to clean something, that are going to be harder than to get things off," he said.

Goodner said there were very few germs present on the few paper bags and metal lunch boxes that were tested.

Goodner also created a "battle of the sexes" experiment with the lunch bags. He compared the amount of germs on lunch bags that appeared to belong to girls to lunch bags that appeared to belong to boys. They were about equal when it came to the number of germs per lunch bag, but the two dirtiest lunch bags tested appeared to belong to girls.

Goodner said it's easy to help your child avoid carrying a germ-infected lunch bag. Regularly wiping your child's lunch bag with Clorox wipes, encouraging your child to regularly and thoroughly wash their hands, and throwing some hand sanitizer in their bag will keep it clean, and your lower your child's risk of getting sick.

"Lunchboxes take a little bit of a beating... They're in. They're out. They're moving around... They're just going to get dirtier," he said.

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