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How bacteria get inside your house

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Given that they occupy every other niche on earth, including deep sea vents, salt flats and the interior of human bodies, it should come as no surprise that bacteria are also found in human houses. Once inside, they can cause problems; airborne bacteria can be easily move between people and spread their corresponding diseases. Nowadays, with the proliferation of aircon units and indoor fans there are more ways than ever for airborne bacteria to be lifted up and spread around an indoor area.

A recent paper in PLOS ONE looks at how bacteria enter these indoor environments. There are various different routes they could potentially take: they could breeze in through open windows and doors, be actively carried on human skin or clothes, or be introduced through breathing, sneezing, or coughing in an enclosed space. The researchers chose a university classroom as their enclosed space, and performed quantitative analysis of the indoor bacteria, including those found on the floor, suspended in the air, and found in the aircon and ventilation units. These were then compared to phylogenetic libraries of bacteria found in the human skin microbiome, outdoor aerial bacteria, and  indoor floor dust to see where the indoor bacteria were coming from.

Image from reference one.

The graph above shows the total particle mass found in the ventilation duct (DUCT), outdoor air (OUT) and indoor air (IN) during periods where the room was either occupied or vacant. Values are show as either PM10 (mass of particulate matter in particles 10 µm in aerodynamic diameter or less) or PM2.5 (mass of particulate matter in particles 2.5 µm in aerodynamic diameter or less). What this shows is that when the room is occupied, particulate matter, particularly larger particles (such as dust or dirt) are far more likely to be filling the room.

To further explore the effect of room occupancy on the effect of indoor particles they compared three situations – one where a single person walked in over the carpet, one where a single person walked in over a plastic sheeting covering the carpet (to prevent re-suspension of floor particles) and one where 30 people walked in over the plastic sheeting. The table below shows that the carpet was the major source for re-suspended large particles in the air, although with enough people large particles were still found floating around (unfortunately the experiment with 30 people was only carried out once, so there are no error bars).

Image from reference 1

Rather than looking simply at suspended particles and particle size, the researchers then looked at the actual bacterial content of these particles. The resuspended floor dust was, perhaps surprisingly, found to contain the most bacteria, compared with the ventilation duct, indoor air and outdoor air. As dust is formed from bits of dried human skin, it seems that the human skin microbiome may be most responsible for the propagation of indoor bacteria, and the effect is exacerbated the more people are inside and stirring up the dust.

Image from reference 1 - showing mass of bacteria found in particles from different locations

What is interesting is that this suggests humans play two important roles in propagating indoor bacteria.  Firstly, they are a major source of introducing it, through skin, hair, and other components of dust (further analysis in the paper shows the actually species of bacteria found in the dust, which correspond to those on human skin). Secondly by regularly occupying a house they stir the dust up, keeping the particles moving around in the air. If you want to reduce the amount of airborne bacteria, it isn’t just the ventilation system that needs cleaning, it’s wise to make sure the floor is swept as well!

Reference 1:  Hospodsky D, Qian J, Nazaroff WW, Yamamoto N, Bibby K, et al. (2012) Human Occupancy as a Source of Indoor Airborne Bacteria. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34867. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034867

Credit link for featured image: lecture hall

S.E. Gould About the Author: A biochemist with a love of microbiology, the Lab Rat enjoys exploring, reading about and writing about bacteria. Having finally managed to tear herself away from university, she now works for a small company in Cambridge where she turns data into manageable words and awesome graphs. Follow on Twitter @labratting.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. hanmeng 11:45 pm 07/13/2013

    So keep people out: no bacteria inside.

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  2. 2. Rob Hooft 2:08 pm 07/14/2013

    I would be interested to hear about the difference between the distribution of pathogenic and benign bacteria. The presence of bacteria is not in itself a bad sign, and benign bacteria can often keep the pathogenic ones in check.

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  3. 3. S.E. Gould in reply to S.E. Gould 9:37 am 07/15/2013

    Thanks for the comments! In the paper they identify a whole range of species, including: Proprionibacterineae, Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Enterobacteriaceae, and Corynebacterineae. They didn’t say whether or not they were pathogenic though. Certainly there is nothing wrong with the presence or absence of bacteria, but if harmful bacteria are around in the environment, it could be useful to properly speculate about how they are being circulated inside a building.

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