The Spectrum's campus-wide swab test shows E. coli and Staph call UB home
E. coli was flourishing in a men’s bathroom in the Porter dorms.
Mold and other fungi were growing on a couch in the Silverman Library, on a door in Greiner Hall, on a microwave in Pistachio’s, on a coffee dispenser in Capen Cafe and on a table in Knox 20.
Some students were outraged by the discoveries The Spectrum made this month during our first science-based campus report, which involved swabbing 39 spots or objects on North Campus and seeing what microbes, or microorganisms, were growing on them. After we took our samples, we transferred them to agar plates. We stored the plates in an incubator kept at optimal human body temperature, 37 degrees Celsius or 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, for almost a week. With the warm temperature and the agar media to provide nutrients necessary for microbial growth, what were once microscopic, individual microbes divided and grew into large, visible colonies.
Most of the samples contained microbes like fungi, mold or bacteria, which students find disgusting, but doctors say are quite common.
Jacob Chambers, a professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, helped The Spectrum identify the microbes growing on the plates.
He said the high bacteria counts in the Porter bathroom were “disturbing” and suggests students are not washing their hands enough. Chambers said a lot of the growth on the 39 plates was likely a combination of Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus epidermidis.
E. coli, a type of bacteria called a coliform, is part of a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Most strains are benign, but some can be more harmful and could lead to food poisoning if consumed. E. coli is easily transferred from person to person. Chambers said it is common everywhere.
“A lot of [E. coli] is transmitted through what’s called the fecal-oral route. It is where people are not washing their hands well enough after using the restroom and are transferring bacteria to whatever surfaces they touch,” Chambers said.
He added that often “parts of the men’s or ladies’ rooms –– doorknobs on the inside, outside or even just doorknobs in general,” will have more of the bacteria and “that’s unfortunately how things like food poisoning are transmitted.”
UB residence hall bathrooms get cleaned every weekday, said Kimberly Navarroli, senior associate director of residential facilities.
Navarroli said custodial services has no record of high bacteria in the residence hall bathrooms in the last five years. Navarroli said custodial staff follow International Sanitary Supply Association standards. The Spectrum asked Navarroli when the Porter bathrooms had been cleaned on March 7 — the retrieval date of our microbe sample. The Spectrum asked what products are used to clean toilet seats in Porter and in the Ellicott Complex residence halls. Navarroli did not respond to either question.
Kevin Bajdel, a freshman civil engineering major, said his Wilkeson dorm restroom is typically unclean and that he lives with “filthy animals.”
Bajdel was outraged when he heard about high bacterial and E. coli counts identified in the Porter men’s bathroom.
“If restaurants are being shut down because of bacteria and you want me to use a bathroom where E. coli is, that’s kind of absurd,” Bajdel said. “Honestly, I hope I get E. coli, and I can account for this conversation that I’m having right now to sue the school. That is absurd.”
Joe Raab, director of UB Environment, Health and Safety, said the microorganisms The Spectrum found are not unexpected. He said custodians clean restrooms every evening and include all surfaces, like sink handles, counters and toilet seats. He said busier restrooms around campus are cleaned more often.
Raab said students should recognize that E. coli may be present in any restroom setting and should practice appropriate hand-washing and hygiene. He said students who are concerned about restroom conditions should report service or repair issues to campus facilities.
Other bacteria like S. epidermidis was found on almost all of the plates, especially on keyboards outside the Silverman Library’s printing station. This bacteria is extremely common and part of a normal human skin microbiome.
Madison Featherstone, a senior linguistics and African American studies major, used the Silverman Library keyboard The Spectrum swabbed on a Wednesday before her class.
“I think responsibility for [cleanliness] goes both ways,” Featherstone said. “Cleaning should definitely be a priority. I understand that’s hard because places like the library get so much traffic, but students should do more to be hygienic, be good Samaritans and clean up after themselves.”
Danny Shteynvarts, a freshman biology major, said he also frequently uses the keyboards in the libraries that The Spectrum swabbed. Shteynvarts said he thinks it’s disgusting there are any bacteria on the keyboards at all.
“If there’s bacteria there, maybe I should start using gloves. Maybe UB should get people to wash the keyboards down more often,” Shteynvarts said.
Chambers said the bigger risk with surveys like this, however, are what the plates don’t capture: viruses.
“That’s important especially during flu season because if people aren’t washing their hands and you see this [bacterial growth], imagine the viruses that are also present on that surface that we aren’t capturing a profile of, but are probably there,” he said.
Chambers said viruses, which can’t be detected by The Spectrum’s survey, don’t survive long on their own, but can last long enough to be easily transmitted to hands, eyes or mouths.
“This a good reflection of just poor hygiene habits that will play into things like viral infections, in addition to any sort of bacterial problem,” Chambers said.
As for fungi and mold, Raab said most species are not something to be overly concerned about. He said routine cleaning is sufficient and effective in controlling fungal growths. Raab said university custodians clean all public areas routinely and vacuum furniture as needed.
Dr. John Panepinto was unsurprised by The Spectrum’s fungal findings and explained that as part of their life cycle, fungi produce spores that are designed to be carried through the air and can get just about anywhere.
Panepinto said that fungi are unavoidable and originate in the soil.
“We breathe in [fungal] spores every day. They are on our shoes, our skin and our clothes,” said Panepinto, an associate professor in the microbiology and immunology department of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“Most of us are unaffected, but some of us have allergic reactions to mold spores. It’s only when the human immune system is extremely compromised, such as with AIDS or transplantation, or there are other predisposing factors, that the potential for infection become a serious issue.”
Raab said the locations The Spectrum tested, such as the Silverman Library couch and Knox 20 table, are surfaces that often collect dust and oils, typical for environmental molds and fungi.
EHS can be contacted to investigate and evaluate any areas with significant mold growth. If found, EHS uses Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for remediation of mold in buildings.
Although The Spectrum’s plates covered a number of microbial growths, they don’t capture the full UB microbiome, Chambers said. There is a whole group of bacteria that scientists classify as “unculturable,” he said.
“Not all bacteria are going to grow on this. We can’t figure out how to grow them,” Chambers said. “These plates give us a great visual glimpse into the microbes around us, but they don’t give us a complete picture. We have no idea, outside of human pathogenesis, what’s out there in terms of bacteria. It’s sort of a wild, wild west.”
Kirsten Dean is a staff writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.