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Germs have a way of turning up in the places you least expect, including your public library.

When most of think about catching a nasty bacterial infection, we think of public restrooms, communal showers, hospitals, emergency rooms, elevators, escalators, door knobs, or standing in a crowd of people. Most of us don't usually stop to think that we could acquire antibiotic-resistant bacteria from a library book. 

That's exactly what researchers at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria found, however, when they tested books at four public libraries for antibiotic-resistant strains of  Bacillus, Proteus, Micrococcus, Stapylococcus, Yersenia, , Klebsiella serratia, Erwinia, Pseudomonas and Providencia. Bacteria associated with infections ranging from MRSA to bubonic plague can be found on the pages of library books, and many of these bacteria are strains that cannot be easily treated with antibiotics.

Just how many library books are contaminated with disease-causing bacteria? The Nigerian researchers found that:

  • 2.5 percent of books were contaminated with Erwinia. These bacteria won't make you sick, but they may kill your house plants or your garden.
  • 2.5 percent of books were contaminated with Providencia. These are bacteria that can cause urinary tract infections. Just how these bacteria managed to migrate from someone's urinary tract to the pages of a library book we'll leave to your imagination.
  • 22.5 percent of books were contaminated with Staphylococcus. These are the bacteria that can cause skin infections. Everyone has some staph bacteria on their skin, but they can easily infect cuts, burns, and abrasions.
  • 27.5 percent of books were contaminated with Bacillus. There are only two species of Bacillus that cause medical problems, but one causes food poisoning and the other causes anthrax. The germs of this genus on library books probably got there from feces or spoiled food.

Obviously, lapses in personal hygiene can become important at a public library. That's especially true when one considers how hard it can be to treat the kinds of infections that can be transmitted on library books. In the Nigerian study:

  • 17 percent of contaminated books contained bacteria that are resistant to treatment with Cipro (ciprofloxacin).
  • 75 percent of contaminated books contained bacteria that are resistant to treatment with tetracycline.
  • 100 percent of contaminated books contained bacteria that were resistant to at least one antibiotic.
  • Every sample of Staphylococcus aureus was resistant to every antibiotic tested.
  • 48 percent of contaminated books contained bacteria that were resistant to every antibiotic the researchers tested.

Why does this make a difference? Bacteria are capable of passing genes for antibiotic resistance to their neighbors. This means that if you have an infection with some kind of bacteria that responds to antibiotics and you pick up one of these books that is festering with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the bacteria on the book can make the bacteria already in your body resistant to the antibiotic that is holding them in check. Every worse, many contaminated books in this library contain bacteria that can transfer resistance to any antibiotic your doctor may be using to treat you.

You may not get an infection from the bacteria in an unsanitary book, but those bacteria can make it harder to treat any infection you may already have.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Brook SJ, Brook I. Are public library books contaminated by bacteria? J Clin Epidemiol. 1994 Oct. 47(10):1173-4. PMID: 7722550.
  • Leite DP Jr, Yamamoto AC, Amadio JV, Martins ER, do Santos FA, Simões Sde A, Hahn RC. Trichocomaceae: biodiversity of Aspergillus spp and Penicillium spp residing in libraries. J Infect Dev Ctries. 2012 Oct 19.6(10):734-43. doi: 10.3855/jidc.2080. PMID: 23103896.
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