Germ generators: How dirty are kids' toys?

Rubber duck.

Any parent can tell you that kids get their hands on a lot of things. Some of them are innocuous but others can be dirty and even dangerous.

KFOX14 met two mothers with two very different parenting styles. One is a self-proclaimed germaphobe. The other is a country girl who says she isn’t afraid of letting her kids play in the dirt.

The women have never met but say they can’t imagine raising their children the other way around. So, KFOX14 decided to put their toys to the test to see if they pose any health hazards.

The first mother is Christina Torres, a mother of two. Torres says her 3-year-old son, Ethan, gets into everything.

“If he's quiet, that is a sign that something is wrong and he's doing something that he shouldn't be doing,” Torres said.

Torres says she is constantly cleaning her house and anything her sons might touch.

“It's good to always have those Lysol wipes to clean the toys and I have a rule of thumb that as soon as we walk into the house everyone has to line up to wash their hands before they touch anything, coming from Walmart or even the park,” Torres said.

She says her children are exposed to enough bacteria and germs in their daily lives at school and in day care so she tries to control what she can at home.

“A lot of people tell me that I'm a germaphobe but I don't care because, like I said, I'd like to control what I can control and not have to get sick,” Torres said.

When she is cleaning, Torres says, she focuses on areas and objects her sons might come in contact with, such as floors and toys. She uses disinfecting wipes and is constantly asking her children to wash their hands.

The second mother, Sarah Byrne, has three children under the age of 6. She grew up in Tennessee and says she was allowed to play in the mud and doesn’t see a problem with allowing her children to do the same.

“I really do feel like me letting them play in the dirt and not being a fanatic about washing their hands all the time is helping them build up an immunity,” Byrne said.

She considers her approach to parenting "commonsense country." She tries to teach her children about some places that might be dirtier than most, such as public restrooms, but says she doesn’t go overboard.

“I'm kind of lax. I mean, we don't use any of the antibacterial stuff,” Byrne said. “I don't do any of, like, the cleaning up toys or anything like that. I don't know if that's horrible but my kids never get sick.”

The mothers each gave us one of their children’s toys to take to a lab to test to find out whether it poses any health hazards.

KFOX14 took the toys to biology professor Miguel Aguilar at El Paso Community College’s Transmountain Campus.

“You're always going to encounter bacteria because we have it in our skin,” Aguilar said. “Very early on, as soon as you're born, you begin acquiring bacteria from your parents, from your mother. Their hands are touching you and as you're interacting with them in your home you're going to pick up that bacteria, so every single day you are adapting and acquiring bacteria.”

Aguilar says the amount of bacteria that gathers on toys and other objects depends on the surface. The more porous the toy, the more bacteria and germs can grow. The toys are also more likely to have more bacteria if they are in dark or wet places away from sunlight, such as bathrooms.

But, Aguilar, says the most bacteria in a house can typically be found in and around the kitchen.

First, Aguilar tested the rubber ducks Torres gave KFOX14. After 24 hours, enough bacteria grew for Aguilar to analyze.

“For duck No. 1, we have a combination of fungus with some of the bacterial colonies there,” Aguilar said. “It did have staph (Staphylococcus aureus), which is a typical bacteria that you find on the body. What's unique about the body part that you find it in is that it's in the ear. So that was what was unique about it. It also had fungus, quite a bit, on it.”

That fungus typically comes from soil, according to Aguilar and he said it’s nothing to worry about.

“It's not a big deal at all because those are common things that we have in our atmosphere and they will be part of our daily life interactions,” he said.

The second duck Torres gave KFOX14 to test didn’t have anything specific on it except small traces of bacteria.

The bear that Byrne provided also had bacteria on it.

“That one did have two very unique bacteria and quite a bit of fungus. We did find once again quite a bit a fungus with the same mold, from the soil, most likely. But what's unique about it is it does have something that is a bacteria that's typically a gram-negative (bacteria). But this one -- you find it in the soil and also in plants, so usually it's associated with plants,” Aguilar said.

He believes there are two ways this could be a problem for children. The first is if the child has an open cut and the bacteria gets in. The second is if the child inhales some of the bacteria.

“What's unique about this one is that it affects, usually, the upper respiratory system and it gives you deformities, so that was kind of strange to find that one on that toy,” he said.

But there is an easy way to solve the problem. Aguilar said simple soap and water would do the trick.

“In a day-to-day activity, you don't need to go to the extremes of trying to sterilize everything because as soon as any person walks in, they're going to end up leaving that bacteria behind and it's going to be part of life,” he said.

But there are things parents can do to protect their children. First, be mindful of piling toys up. One contaminated toy could affect all of the others.

Second, practice good hand-washing. Aguilar says there is no need to use antibacterial soap in daily washing because it can actually be harmful in the long run.

“They're actually going to enhance your ability to cultivate a bacteria that is maybe drug resistant to that active ingredient and that's not what we want,” Aguilar said.

He said it’s important for parents to find a balance.

“That's the extreme that we see here in the United States is people going to that extreme, being too clean, and therefore that's not allowing the child to adapt better to what's in the environment,” he said. “The point here is that we need to find an equilibrium.”

KFOX14 also spoke to a local doctor about how parents can keep their children safe. Dr. Rana Kranfol, from El Paso Pediatric Associates, said most children are born without immunity and build it up over time. She says part of that comes from the babies' mothers.

“The longer the mom breast-feeds, the longer the babies are immune,” Kranfol said.

She said viruses can only live on surfaces such as toys for a certain amount of time and are transmitted through respiratory contact.

She also said some exposure is beneficial.

“The more they're exposed to the viruses, the more their immune system has to fight this virus is up, and it does become stronger,” Kranfol said.

Exposure to other children also helps build immune systems. Kranfol says children who go to day care are less likely to get sick when they reach kindergarten than those who do not.

“If a person is not exposed to any viruses until they going to pre-K or kindergarten, they will be sick, we usually say, every couple of weeks,” Kranfol said. “Slowly but surely, that immune system does build up and rather than be sick every week or two, it becomes every month and then every two months and then they're able to go through the school year getting sick three or four times.”

The best advice Kranfol has for parents is teaching children good hand-washing techniques and having a good relationship with your pediatrician so you can call and ask questions.

KFOX14 showed the lab test results to the two mothers and asked them whether they are going to do anything differently.

"It seems like what was on the toy was perfectly normal for kids to have around them, which is a little bit of dirt. There's nothing wrong with dirt and I think it's great for kids to play outside," Byrne said.

She said she isn’t planning on changing her ways and this report reaffirmed her beliefs that some exposure to dirt and bacteria is good.

Torres, said the results were surprising and she plans on cleaning her children's bathroom toys more thoroughly.

"That's really gross, those findings that you got. My husband was appalled by them. We're definitely going to remove all the toys we have in there for when Ethan takes his bath," Torres said.

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