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Kids' musical instruments booming with bacteria

March 15, 2011|By Shari Roan, Los Angeles Times
  • Band instruments can contain loads of germs.
Band instruments can contain loads of germs. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

The musical instruments kids play in school bands and orchestras are traveling denizens of bacteria and fungi, say the authors of a new study. Music education is great for kids, they note, but please, please wash the instruments!

Researchers at Oklahoma State University bravely examined 13 instruments that belonged to a high school band. Six of the instruments had been played the previous week and seven hadn't been played in a month. Swabs were taken of 117 different sites on the instruments, including the mouthpieces, internal chambers and even the carrying cases.

The results scored high on the yuck factor. The researchers found 442 different bacteria, 58 types of mold and 19 types of yeast. Many of the bacteria were species of Staphylococcus, which can cause staph infection. Most of the bacteria can cause illness, the authors noted. Mold spores can contribute to the development of asthma. Even the instruments that had not been played recently harbored germs galore.

"Furthermore, this study also found that many of these microbes are highly resistant to some or most of the antibiotics normally used in general practice, including methicillin," the authors wrote.

The study showed that reeds and mouthpiece ends were more contaminated than bell ends, but even the midpoints of the instruments and bell ends contained plenty of toxins. Woodwinds tended to be germier than brass instruments. Even the woodwind cases were more contaminated than the brass cases. Clarinets were the filthiest instruments. The germs in the instruments can be easily transferred to the students' hands, which in turn could contaminate other instruments, other students or the band room, the researchers said.

They noted that many school band instruments are loaned to students and have been played by countless other people "whose health histories are unknown."

While bandos are not Typhoid Marys, their instruments are truly a problem, the researchers said. All instruments should be sterilized on a routine basis. Ethylene oxide is the only agent known to sterilize instruments effectively," they wrote.

The study was published Monday in the journal General Dentistry.

Related: New ways to fight bacteria

Return to Booster Shots blog.

[For the record, 12:40 p.m. March 17, An earlier version of this post misspelled ethylene.]

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