Dirty pacifier? Bacteria, mold, fungi and other bacterial growth found in test of baby pacifiers

TULSA - Many babies want them. Some babies need them.

Whether you call them pacifiers, binkies or soothers, parents call them lifesavers.

"Pacifier is kind of a best friend," said new father Bryan Cathey.

Whether Cathey's tackling feeding duty or his wife, Cyndi, they know what 4-month-old Bryson needs.

"Often, if he starts getting fussy and needs a nap, give him that pacifier and within five minutes he is out," said Cyndi Cathey.

Their house is well stocked with one pacifier kept handy at home, two at Bryson's day care center and more in the refrigerator. 

"They're like a special teething, transition into biting," Cyndi added.  "We keep them in the fridge."

Like most new mothers, Cyndi Cathey worries about germs and makes time every night to scrub the pacifiers, bottles and nipples. However, her hard work may not pay off.

"I need to tell you what's in this or on this (pacifier) that can make you sick," said Tom Glass, DDS, Ph.D, professor of forensic sciences, pathology and dental medicine at Oklahoma State University Health Sciences Center in Tulsa.

Glass wanted to know if pacifiers pose a health risk for babies, so he started by gathering up pacifiers from families chosen at random at a Tulsa wellness center. His team of researchers swiped the surface of the pacifiers in an agar plate, then cut them up and tested the inside too.

"So, we can actually determine what is growing on the surface of it," said Glass. "But more importantly, what's growing down in those pores."

It wasn't long before the results were in and they couldn't believe the bacteria they found.

"There are some strep (bacteria) in there and there are some listeria (bacteria) in there," said Glass while looking into a microscope.

Standard lab cultures produced strep bacteria, various strains of staph, including staphylococcus aureus, plus the bacteria that causes pneumonia. The pacifier samples also produced the yeast that causes thrush.

RESULTS - Forty different species of bacteria were isolated from the 10 pacifiers tested. Read the OSU study here, http://bit.ly/Vb4DG5

"Candida albicans is the one that causes thrush in infants and vaginal infections in women," said Jay Bullard, M.S., senior lab technician at OSU HSC. "It's one of the most common yeast infection."

Even worse, the tests revealed mold.

"These are the kinds of mold that cause respiratory distress. Asthma-like symptoms," said Glass. "That was one of the most distressing parts of the whole study. We also found bacteria we did not expect that, by nature of their very being, release poisons into the system."

For a photo gallery of the results the researchers found go here http://bit.ly/Z5z7Nb

The research team grew even more concerned when the study revealed another set of dangerous organisms, the so-called gram-negative bacteria. The team's research paper indicates gram-negative bacteria produce "powerful modulators of the human immune system."

"We have no idea what this was doing to the child's immune system or system in general," said Bullard.  

After considering the findings, Glass now worries pacifiers are providing a way for certain germs to infect babies and then re-infect them over and over again.

"We sampled the nipple of the pacifier and we sampled the shield and found corollary organisms there," said Glass.  "So, that very often children will have a little red ring around their lip and (parents) say, 'Well, the child was just using the pacifier too much.' It's more likely that the pacifier has gotten infected."

The type of organisms the study revealed, and the levels on the pacifiers, lead the doctor to believe binkies could make babies sick.

"Persistent or recurring ear infections, persistent or recurring colic, all of those are the kinds of organisms that we found in or on the pacifier," said Glass.  "The baby's colicky. What do we do? We put the pacifier in, which is supposed to make the baby less colicky. But in reality, is providing everything we need to make the colic persistent."

This is alarming news to parents such as Cyndi Cathey.

"To think that you could get staph infections or thrush or the flu or pneumonia just from something that seems to calm him and soothe him," she said.  "That's very scary."

Parents know it's tough to keep a pacifier clean because their baby drops it often.

"He's crying, you're rushing around trying to feed him, you grab the first pacifier that's available," said Bryan Cathey. "The last thing on my mind is, 'When did this get washed?'"

The OSU HSC researchers say they understand that parental dilemma.

In their study, they found there are three methods parents typically use to clean their baby's pacifier.  Glass found some parents simply dust it off on their sleeve. Others clean it off with a wet wipe.

"A third way that people deal with the pacifier dropping on the floor is for the mother to pick it up and put it in her mouth," said Glass.

While many mothers would never consider that option, Glass suggests that is actually the best way to clean the pacifier, "Because the baby's immune response comes from the mother, at least for the first six months," he said.

At the end of each day, Glass recommends that parents scrub the baby's pacifier or bleach it. However, his team's study found those germs just keep growing.  

"We know that it takes two weeks for this pacifier to become so contaminated that you can't decontaminate it by putting it in the dishwasher or putting it in boiling water," said Glass. "By two weeks, what has happened is the microorganisms, the germs, have formed a complex structure called a biofilm. It's rather impervious to chlorox, baking soda, to boiling."

As a result, Glass told 2NEWS pacifiers should be used for only a short period of time. After just two weeks of use, he suggested parents toss them.

During the 14-day period that a pacifier is in use, Glass recommends parents start the day with a baggy filled with clean pacifiers.

"Put them in the baggy and then take them with you," he said. "As the child drops it, and puts it down on surfaces that you know are contaminated, just take the pacifier away. Put it in the used pacifier bag, get a new one out and give it to the child."

The team at OSU Health Sciences Center went on to recommend new pacifiers at the following times:

1. First symptoms of illness

2. Once ill, after fever breaks

3. As soon as the child recovers

After 2NEWS informed the Catheys of the research results, Cyndi and Bryan quickly decided it is time for new binkies for Bryson.

"He'll just start on his thumb now," said Cyndi.

"Until we can buy new pacifiers," said Bryan.

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