Raleigh, N.C. — Students at Raleigh's Exploris Middle School were disgusted when 5 on Your Side revealed that tests of their lunchboxes turned up fecal bacteria, mold and Listeria.
More than 100 lunchboxes were tested by graduate students in a joint investigation by 5 on Your Side and North Carolina State University. The researchers looked for different bacteria, including Staphylococcus, Listeria and fecal contamination.
Half of the lunchboxes tested positive for low levels of Staph, and 3 percent had low levels of Listeria. Leeann Jaykus, a professor of food, bioprocessing and nutrition science at N.C. State who oversaw the test, said the biggest surprise to her – and a legitimate health concern – was that more than a dozen lunchboxes tested had fecal coliform.
Improper hand washing was the most likely source of the fecal contamination, Jaykus said.
"I thought it was interesting to learn about that, and I'm glad now that I'm informed about this," eighth-grader Jacob Karp said.
Exploris Middle teacher Frank McKay said the students have been studying the bacteria.
"The students were looking at bacteria under microscopes, and so this is a real-life extension of what they're learning in the classroom, " McKay said.
Similar tests on trays at fast-food restaurants came back clean, and the students said they didn't expect those results.
"I would think that would be more dirty than any of our lunchboxes," eighth-grader Olivia Diamond said.
The study didn't pinpoint germs to specific lunchboxes, so the students got the message that they need to wash their hands and their lunchboxes.
"I'm definitely going to start cleaning my lunchbox more often," Diamond said.
"It definitely wasn't as a big of a concern before. Now, I'm definitely going to go back, or when I go home, I'm going to wash my lunchbox," eighth-grader Cathryn Flint said.
Karp agreed, but he said he was most happy with one part of the outcome: "Probably learning that my lunchbox didn't get shown on TV," he said.
The researchers say the results would likely be the same at most schools since it's all about overall cleanliness.