5 On Your Side

Tests find mold, fecal bacteria in children's lunch boxes

Posted February 9, 2012

— Parents wouldn’t serve their children peanut butter and jelly with mold or a ham sandwich with a side of fecal coliforms, but those combinations are popping up in lunch boxes, according to a 5 On Your Side investigation with North Carolina State University.

WRAL News teamed up with an N.C. State scientist and her graduate students to study germs in children’s lunch boxes and on trays at fast food restaurants and mall food courts.

"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, a food science professor at N.C. State.

Listeria and staphylococcus can be found everywhere, and, in small doses, are not typically harmful. Listeria causes disease most often in pregnant women and the elderly. However, fecal coliform, in any amount, is a sanitation concern.

Jaykus and her graduate students swabbed about 100 lunch boxes at Exploris Middle School in Raleigh, which agreed to be part of the study. They also gathered 45 samples from trays at fast food restaurants and mall food courts around Raleigh and eastern North Carolina.

“The trays were really boring,” Jaykus said. “We found no evidence of fecal contamination, no evidence of listeria (and) no evidence of staph.”

She attributes that to the fact that most restaurants wiped off their trays between customers and used paper liners to keep the trays clean. The students’ lunch boxes, on the other hand, “were fun” to examine, Jaykus said.

“I mean, that’s classic mold right there,” she said, pointing to results from one of the lunch boxes.

Half of the lunch boxes tested positive for low levels of staphylococcus, and 3 percent tested positive for listeria. Jaykus says those levels “would not be of any kind of concern.”

"The fact that your lunch box is dirty is kind of grody, but it's not necessarily an indication of a health problem,” she said. However, the presence of fecal matter did concern her.

“This was actually a surprise to me,” she said. “I would say that about 15 percent of the (lunch box) samples showed some evidence of fecal contamination.”

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.

“You could see mold growth. You could see caked food product. You could see that these lunch pails had not been cleaned for a very, very long time,” Jaykus said. “Just so the moms and dads out there know, after we took the samples, we did sanitize the lunch boxes.”

The study focused on risks associated with bacteria, not with viruses. Jaykus says her group plans to publish the results of the tests.

More germ statistics

Surfaces with highest concentration of germ contamination:

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/MainStreet.com)

In schools, surfaces with the most germs:

1. Cafeteria table
2. Computer mouse, which harbored nearly twice as many bacteria than desktops,
3. Bathroom paper towel handle
4. Water fountain
5. Bathroom sink faucets,
6. Library table and
7. Computer keyboard.

(Source: University of Arizona study/PRNewswire)


This story is closed for comments.

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  • Titus Pullo Feb 13, 2012

    So what. Its not like this is news.

  • RomneyRyan2012 Feb 13, 2012

    I wipe the pump on my hand sanitizer occasionally...think about it.

  • piene2 Feb 10, 2012

    You all have your own phobia!

    Mysophobia, or the fear of germs, refers to an unhealthy fear of contamination. It is normal and prudent to be concerned about issues such as cross-contamination of foods, exposure to the bodily fluids of others and maintaining good hygiene. However, if you suffer from mysophobia, these normal concerns become overblown. The phobia is common.

    Symptoms of Mysophobia
    If you suffer from mysophobia, you may experience shaking, heart palpitations, sweating or crying when exposed to dirt or bacteria. These symptoms may occur only when the object of your phobia is visible, as is the case when digging in a garden, or when you believe that germ contact may have occurred, such as when shaking hands with someone or using a doorknob.
    You may also demonstrate unusual behaviors. For example, you may take multiple showers each day. You might carry and use hand sanitizer frequently. You may be unwilling to use public restrooms, share food or take public transportation.

  • awood2 Feb 10, 2012

    After reading this article I really just want to throw up!

  • tierneemalinadeveaux Feb 10, 2012

    Kids do at school what they are taught to do at home. If handwashing and cleanliness are stressed at home, you do not have that much of a problem at school. I don't understand people who are constantly blaming the school system for everything. School staffs are the most overworked, underpaid people in America, and we are still doing the parents' job! We police your kids all day. I mean, really! Now you want to blame us because you did not teach little Johnny to wash his nasty little hands after he used the toilet? Give me a BREAK!

  • JustOneGodLessThanU Feb 10, 2012

    Big Government is at it again! If children and parents WANT fecal bacteria, let them have it. Stop sticking your bureaucratic noses in everywhere trying to educate people to be all "safe" and "healthy" and what not. Eating and spreading germs...ALL germs no matter how dangerous to our children and others...is our right!


  • snshine62d Feb 10, 2012

    Yea really! I sure hope some teachers and cafeteria workers lose their jobs over the filthy lunch boxes these kids bring from home!!! Public schools can't do anything right!

    It's not the schools job to wash your kids lunch box it's yours. And as far as public schools, my child attended them all the way through 12 grade then went to UNC and graduated in the top 5% of class and is now a RN. It's not the school, it's how much the parents put into their child.

  • redrubberball1 Feb 10, 2012

    Mine did and she demanded it in her home until the day she died. 60 years later, I'm still doing it with regularity.

  • handbasket Feb 10, 2012

    Dear Dr. LeAnn Jaykus, food science professor at N.C. State: would you please use MY TAX DOLLARS to work on helping farmers grow better crops for food or help find a cure for cancer or something else useful!!

  • Scubagirl Feb 10, 2012

    kermit....I think you missed the sarcasm. I didn't read one single post here that in seriousness blamed the schools. This is up to the parents and everyone knows it.