Schools Can Be a Hotbed of Bacteria


Oct. 3, 2006 — -- Like millions of kids across the country, 10-year-old Nick Werner hops on a school bus each morning, bound for Oak Grove Elementary School in Lewisbug, Tenn., for a busy day of school and fun.

What he does not know is that his daily activities will expose him to something other than a fifth-grade education: potentially harmful germs.

Avoiding germs is nearly impossible, something Nick's mom, pediatrician Denise Werner, knows well.

In addition to Nick's two younger sisters, Werner comes in contact with sick kids every day at her medical practice.

She knows how easily germs can spread and how hard it is for parents to prevent sickness.

"Typically, when you have small kids, it's hard to make sure that they're getting their hands clean and that they're not touching things that have germs on them and then touching each other," she said.

An elementary school, where kids share practically everything, is a potential Petri dish of possibility to spread germs.

"Good Morning America" had microbiologist Robert Donofrio, director of the microbiology lab at public health and safety firm NSF International in Ann Arbor, Mich., spend a day following Nick around school.

Donofrio swabbed everything Nick touched and later analyzed it for a germ count.

For the instant germ readings, Donofrio used a hand-held germ meter, which offers a broad sense of the total number of microorganisms present.

A reading above 300 on the meter means microorganisms abound.

"What we're looking for are any bacteria, yeast or mold that might be present on various surfaces or areas that the children might come into contact with during the day," Donofrio said.

In the classroom Nick touched his desktop, a pencil, a pencil sharpener and the water fountain spigot.

The germiest spot was surprising. The water fountain had the highest count: 2,335.

Then Nick's class headed to the gym for an action-packed gym class.

Nick hit the mat for push-ups, worked out with an ab roller, and dribbled a basketball. The piece of equipment with the highest germ count was a shocker.

The basketball, which dozens of students had touched, yielded the highest reading of the day: 13,987.

"[The count] was about 10 times as much as what we found on some of the other surfaces we tested in the gym and in the classroom," Donofrio said.

The next stop was lunch, and the worst culprit in the cafeteria wasn't the students' food trays, the metal counters, or even the communal tables.

The surface that harbored the most organisms was something every child and teacher touches every day: the lunch checkout keypad, which had a reading of 13,144.

"This was the last location touched before the kids started eating," Donofrio said. "If a child is ill, he could easily infect the keyboard via sneezing or coughing, then the next few children could pick up these germs and become infected themselves."

Another hot spot was the mouse Nick used in the computer lab, clocking in with a reading of 9,838.

High-traffic areas, like the lunch keypad or computer mouse, contribute significantly to the spread of germs, but another key factor is the type of material a surface or object is made of, and particularly whether it is porous.

The toilet seat, for instance, had the lowest reading of the day.

Its smooth, nonporous surface cannot retain germs like a ridged basketball or a wooden desk seat. Bathrooms, especially toilets, also are cleaned and disinfected regularly.

"Typically a smoother surface is going to have less of a film to protect that organism," Donofrio said. "A more porous or wood surface has the nooks and crannies that those organisms could reside in and maybe will shield that from any disinfectant contact."

Another germ zone lives in the music room.

Bacteria that can cause a host of medical problems, such as strep, can thrive in the body or mouthpiece of a wind instrument for weeks, according to studies conducted by Encore Etc.

To keep instruments such as recorders, flutes and trumpets free of bacteria, schools can enlist the services of Encore Etc., which created the MaestroMD Sterilization System to disinfect wind instruments.

Though the germ counts at Nick's school may seem high, they're likely not much different from those in any school in the United States.

NSF International and Donofrio have tested schools around the country. The findings from Oak Grove Elementary, which has no history of disease outbreaks, illness or dirty facilities, are consistent with other schools.

The swab from Nick's hands showed that they were relatively germ-free.

But parents should teach kids to be aware of moist environments, like the water fountain, which may harbor lots of germs.

The best bet is to send children to school with bottled water, if it's permitted. Have children wash their hands after gym class and before eating lunch, particularly if they come in contact with a common object that everyone touches, such as a doorknob to a major entry point.

Tuck hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes into their backpacks. On the go, they're acceptable substitutes for proper hand washing.

To teach kids proper hand washing, check out, an online project of NSF International that incorporates interactive games, songs, and other downloadable activities to teach kids how to wash their hands.

For more information, visit and