Is Using Your Smartphone or Tablet in the Kitchen a Food Safety Hazard?

using your smartphone or tablet in the kitchen

Story at-a-glance -

  • According to scientists, cellphones and tablets typically harbor so many germs, they may actually pose a hazard when used in your kitchen during food preparation or when brought to the dinner table
  • Nearly half of Americans report using smartphones or tablets during food preparation. Of those, only 37 percent wash their hands before they handle the food after touching the device
  • To minimize the risk of cross contamination, be sure to wash your hands after touching your phone, before handling your food. Also make a habit of cleaning your phone on a daily basis to reduce its bacterial load
  • There’s also extensive research showing electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from cellphones and other wireless devices are harmful to human health. Strategies to reduce your exposure to these harmful EMFs are included

By Dr. Mercola

There are many reasons to minimize your cellphone use, seeing how they trigger mitochondrial dysfunction, an underlying factor of virtually all chronic disease. But you can also add transmission of bacterial infections to that list.

According to scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), cellphones and tablets typically harbor so many germs, they may actually pose a hazard when used in your kitchen during food preparation or brought to the dinner table.

As noted by Amy Lando, a member of the FDA's consumer studies team in the office of scientific analysis and support center for food safety:1

"As you know, smartphones, tablets and other devices have become ubiquitous in our daily lives. We take them everywhere — work, the store, the bathroom, the gym and many other places. It makes perfect sense to use them in the kitchen, and people are increasingly doing that.

Why have 50 cookbooks when you can just look at your phone? But we also know from previous research that bacteria that cause disease can survive on cell phones."

Could Using Your Phone in the Kitchen Pose a Health Hazard?

To investigate whether there's any real risk to using electronic devices during food preparation, Lando, epidemiologist Michael Bazaco, Ph.D., and microbiologist Yi Chen, Ph.D., combined data from the 2016 Food Safety Survey2 with information from eight focus groups relating to people's use of cellphones and tablets in the kitchen.

The study,3 which is believed to be the first of its kind, was published in the Journal of Food Protection. Overall, nearly half of Americans report using smartphones or tablets during food preparation, and of those, only 37 percent wash their hands before they handle the food after touching the device.

"Most people don't recognize this as a safety issue," Lando said.4 "People in both the focus groups and the survey were much more likely to report washing their hands after touching raw meat, chicken, or fish — foods that leave hands feeling sticky and are associated with bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli — than after touching their devices."

Next, the team intends to investigate whether there's any evidence to suggest that cross contamination between electronic devices and food might have caused foodborne illnesses. At present, there's no data on this. As noted by Bazaco:5

"[R]esearch on pathogen contamination on smartphones in a consumer household, such as a kitchen, is limited. We need more research to better understand the actual risk to consumers from using their devices while preparing food.

This can be done by a targeted microbiological surveillance sampling of devices, their owners, and the kitchen environment. Sampling of the household environment during foodborne outbreak investigations could also identify potential risks. An assessment of the survival of foodborne pathogens on actual phones could help us better understand this risk …

If we find a link between these devices and outbreaks of foodborne illness, the question becomes: How can consumers stay safe without entirely avoiding using their phones and other devices while preparing food?

Can we recommend specific safety measures? We'll need to study the pathogens of concern in these cases to see how long they can survive and transfer to a food in the immediate environment."

Cellphones and Tablets Are Hotspots for Germs

While it's still unclear whether touching your smartphone or tablet during cooking might spread pathogens leading to foodborne illness, a number of studies have confirmed these devices harbor tremendous amounts of bacteria — up to 10 times more than your average toilet seat!

In this particular study,6 researchers sought to quantify the number of bacteria found on secondary school students' mobile phones, as this is a population that has made smartphones an intimate part of their everyday life. After collecting bacterial samples from 27 cellphones of students aged 16 to 18, the bacterial colonies were counted.

A high average count of microbes was found on each of the phones, with more than 20 different species detected. Interestingly, while the researchers identified several strains of bacteria that are potentially pathogenic, they did not identify a significant amount of bacteria that would indicate fecal contamination, despite the fact that most students took their phone with them into the bathroom. According to the researchers:

"Our study showed high level contamination of … mobile phones with potentially pathogenic bacteria to be common, and we hypothesize that this may play a role in the spread of infectious agents in the community. However, based on our results, the mobile phones of secondary school students do not appear to be considerable vectors for the spread of antibacterial resistance."

Although the study had a small sample size, the results confirm that bringing your cellphone from bathroom to the dinner table potentially increases your risk of spreading germs and illness.

However, the majority of the bacterial contamination on the phones was the result of transfer of microbes normally found on your skin to the surface of the phone.7 For instance, Staphylococcus bacteria, normally found on skin, may be present on your phone, but not typically the type that triggers a staph infection.

Microwave Radiation Exposure Is a Significant Health Risk of Cellphones and Tablets

While transfer of bacteria is a valid concern, it takes a backseat to the No. 1 health hazard of cellphones, tablets and other wireless devices, which is microwave radiation exposure. There's extensive — and growing — research showing electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are harmful to human health. For example, research has shown EMFs emitted by these devices:8

Create excess oxidative stress — EMFs activate voltage gated calcium channels located in the outer membrane of your cells.9,10,11,12,13 Once activated, the VGCCs open up, allowing an abnormal influx of calcium ions into the cell. The excess calcium triggers a chemical cascade that results in the creation of peroxynitrites — extremely potent oxidant stressors believed to be a root cause for many of today's chronic diseases.

Inside your body, peroxynitrites modify tyrosine molecules in proteins to create a new substance, nitrotyrosine and nitration of structural protein.14 Changes from nitration are visible in human biopsies of atherosclerosis, myocardial ischemia, inflammatory bowel disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and septic lung disease.15

Open the blood-brain barrier, allowing toxins to enter your brain.

Fragment DNA — Studies have shown EMFs cause DNA fragmentation. Significant oxidative stress from peroxynitrites may also result in single-strand breaks of DNA.16

Damage mitochondria, and impair proton flow and ATP production — The enzyme ATP synthase — which passes currents of protons through a water channel, similar to current passing through a wire — generates energy in the form ATP from ADP, using this flow of protons.

Magnetic fields can change the transparency of the water channel to protons, thereby reducing the current. As a result, you get less ATP, which can have systemwide consequences, from promoting chronic disease and infertility to lowering intelligence.

Alter cellular function due to excessive charge — In a previous interview, Alasdair Philips, founder of Powerwatch,17 explained how EMF exposure alters cellular function by way of excessive charges. Essentially, the cell functions as a gel, held together by electric charge. When the charge becomes excessive due to a massive influx of electrons, the function of the cell is disrupted.

Raise the risk for abnormal cell growth and cancer, including leukemia and cancer of the brain, acoustic nerve, salivary gland, eyes, testes, thyroid and breast — As early as 2011, the evidence was strong enough for the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization, to declare cellphones a Group 2B "possible human carcinogen."18 Since then, a number of studies have found support for EMF having carcinogenic potential, including two recent government-funded studies.19,20,21

Three recent studies corroborate the cancer link, showing rodents exposed to cellphone radiation are more likely to develop heart and brain tumors. DNA damage and damage to heart tissue were also observed. Based on these findings, researchers are now urging IARC to upgrade its classification of cellphones from a "possible" carcinogen to a "probable" human carcinogen.

Has neurological effects — Studies dating back to the 1950s and '60s show the nervous system is the organ most sensitive to EMFs. Some of these studies show massive changes in the structure of neurons, including cell death and synaptic dysfunction.

Consequences of chronic EMF exposure to the brain include anxiety, depression, autism and Alzheimer's disease, which Martin Pall, Ph.D., details in a 2016 paper.22

Contributes to reproductive problems in both sexes — For example, prenatal exposure to magnetic fields can nearly triple a pregnant woman's risk of miscarriage.23 Several other studies have come to similar conclusions.24,25,26,27,28 In men, studies show EMF radiation from cellphones and laptops reduces sperm motility and viability,29,30 and increases sperm DNA fragmentation.31

Alters your microbiome, turning what might otherwise be beneficial microbes pathogenic. This too can have far-ranging health effects, since we now know your microbiome plays an important role in health.

Take Precautions to Protect Yourself and Your Children

The first cellphone was manufactured in 1973, but it took nearly two decades before cellphones became a mainstream consumer product. Since then, however, wireless technology has advanced at an exponential rate.

The problem with this rapid expansion of wireless technology is the fact that damage done by EMF radiation can take years, perhaps even decades, to develop. We still do not have a firm grasp of what the long-term effects might be on children, most of whom are now exposed even before birth.

There are clues, however. In one study,32 compared to children whose mothers did not use cellphones during pregnancy, those whose mothers did use cellphones prior to birth had a:

  • 25 percent higher rate of emotional problems
  • 34 percent higher rate of peer related problems
  • 35 percent higher incidence of hyperactivity
  • 49 percent higher rate of behavioral problems

For your child's sake and your own health, I urge you to minimize these kinds of risks — and reduce the potential for spreading bacteria — by following a few commonsense strategies:

Minimize bacterial contamination on your phone — Keep your phone out of the bathroom where fecal material is aerosolized with every flush of the toilet. Cleaning your phone daily by wiping with a soft microfiber will remove many germs. For a deeper clean, use a combination of 60 percent water and 40 percent rubbing alcohol on a soft cloth and gently wipe your phone.

Steer clear of liquid or spray cleaners that may damage the phone. Remember to wash your hands several times each day to reduce the transfer of bacteria from your hands to the phone and other common surfaces. If using your phone or tablet during food preparation, be sure to wash your hands after touching your phone, before handling your food.

Keep the phone away from your head and keep in airplane mode when carried on your body — Consider moving your cellphone away from your head when it's turned on or the Wi-Fi, data or Bluetooth are enabled. You may do this by using a selfie stick or speaking on the speaker phone. Short conversations and texting more than talking also reduce your exposure.

When not in use, be sure to put your phone in airplane mode and/or in a faraday bag. This is particularly important if you carry your phone on your body. Wired headsets allow you to keep your phone away from your head while in use.

However, if it's not well shielded, the wire itself may act as an antenna, attracting and transmitting radiation directly to your head. One of the best types of headsets is one with a combination of shielded wire and air-tube. These transmit the sound as an actual sound wave, in much the same way sound is transmitted through a stethoscope.

Limit cellphone use to areas with excellent reception — The weaker the reception in the area, the more power the phone must emit to make the connection and therefore the more radiation is emitted. This increases your risk of greater radiation penetration to your body.

Minimize or eliminate your use of all wireless devices — It is important to ask yourself whether or not you truly need to use a wireless device each time you pick one up. If you must use a portable home phone, consider those that operate at 900 MHz, as these don't usually broadcast when not in use.

The way to measure your exposure from your portable phones and other electronic devices is to use an radiofrequency meter that measures up to 8 Gigahertz to detect frequencies from newer devices.

Respect others in your immediate area — Some people have become sensitive to EMF radiation and feel the effects even when the phone is on, but not being used. Consider keeping your cellphone off when you're in a meeting, in a courthouse, doctor's office and other public areas, and around children to reduce "secondhand radiation" effects.

Don't let your child use a cellphone — Unless it's a life-threatening emergency, young children should not use cellphones and tablets. If you feel they really need one, seriously consider implementing strict limits on their use, and teach your child to never sleep with the device near their bed while it's on.

Turn off your Wi-Fi router and cellphone when not in use — When they aren't in use, turn your Wi-Fi, modem and cellphone off to stop the emission of radiation.

Certain nutrients may reduce damage — Researchers have discovered certain spices may help prevent or repair damage from peroxynitrites.33,34 Spices rich in phenolics, specifically cloves, rosemary, turmeric, cinnamon and ginger root exhibited some protective capacity against peroxynitrite-induced damage.

Optimizing your magnesium level may also help reduce damage associated with EMFs. Magnesium is a natural calcium channel blocker, which reduces the effects of EMF on your VGCCs. When you're deficient in magnesium, you get excessive VGCC activity as well as excessive calcium influx.

+ Sources and References