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Study: Is Going To The Mall Bad For Your Health?

Keith Warriner
April 19, 2016


Some people are addicted to it, some like to just pass their time hanging around, whilst others dread it. We are of course talking about taking a trip to the shopping mall. Throughout human history, the marketplace has brought people together to shop, trade and socialize. Although modern shopping malls are far removed from the traditional open marketplace there are similarities in that it brings a high density of people together within an environment of common contact surfaces. It follows that the shopping mall has come under the spotlight for transferring and disseminating infectious agents. The most “germy” place encountered is of course the washrooms but what other “pits of peril” can we expect to encounter when out shopping at the mall?



The Food Court


The average shopping mall food court is a perimeter of food service outlets where the patrons take their food on a tray to the central dinning area. At peak times, the food court is a hectic place with a high turnover of shoppers and workers battling to clean tables before the next dinners take their spot. In such a high intensity environment it can be tempting to cut corners on sanitation and shoppers tend not to wash their hands due to the fear of picking something up from the washrooms.  From studies performed, researchers have found heavy contamination on both trays and tables although virulent pathogens are rarely recovered. Nevertheless, potential transfer of contamination from the swing lid of bins to trays has been observed. The cloths used to give the table and tray a quick wipe has proven more effective at redistributing contamination as opposed to removing it (D'Souza et al., 2015, Dingsdag and Coleman, 2013). Consequently, there is a risk of spreading pathogens but those germs carried on the diners hands are probably of more concern.


Escalator handrails


Escalators by their very nature hold perils beyond any risk of acquiring harmful bugs. Escalaphobia affects thousands of people despite the fact that there are only 0.8 accidents per million riders (Chia et al., 2006). Some of the accidents are no doubt caused by not holding onto the handrail in fear of acquiring an infectious agent. Although not extensively studied, the microflora on handrails is low although can get hot spots of contamination where counts can exceed 100, 000 cfu. Yet, the general conclusion is that handrails are a minor concern to public health so be sure to hold on when using the mall escalators.


ATM machines


ATM machines are a frequently touched surface that can result in cross-contamination. Evidence available suggests that although Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus are recovered, their prevalence and levels are low (Zhang et al., 2012). If the same applies to credit card readers it has yet to be studied. The evidence would suggest that although the risk exists of contracting a bug from ATM’s the probability is low.  


Cosmetic counters, toy shops and electronic stores


Some commentators think the main danger in shopping malls are within the stores with the cosmetic counters and toy sections being of specific concern. Pathogens associated lip gloss and eye liner can easily cause infections given they are applied directly to lips and eyes respectively. The extent to pathogens are encountered in cosmetics at shopping malls and persist remains unknown. Yet, to prevent pink-eye and/or herpes its best to stick with the single use samples or avoid all together.  


The microbiological hazards associated with toy stores is fairly obvious but probably similar to any playgroup setting (Martinez-Bastidas et al., 2014). There has also been concerned raised about gadget shops were people would try the latest phone, tablets or touch screens in general. Again, data is lacking but from a recent survey it was found that touch screens can harbor a range of pathogens that includes methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (Gerba et al., 2016). One could assume that in the retail setting the risk would be low given that the devices are only transiently used and cleaned frequently.


Clothes shop at your peril


One would consider that clothes shopping would be the safest of activity from a microbiological standpoint. There are concerns about changing rooms although a study performed by Dr Tierno found it could be the least of your concerns compared to the garments themselves. It’s natural for a would-be customer to handle clothes and try them on. So when you take clothes off the peg it’s likely that a fair number of people have done the same. Dr Tierno found the most contaminated garments are underwear and swimsuits, harboring a diverse range of enteric bacteria and commensal microbes. So even if garments are not tried on it is possible to transfer or acquire contamination during handling.


Let’s go shopping


In the way of our own investigation, we wanted to look at what types of contamination can be collected on hands during an average shopping trip. The shopper pressed their fingertips onto agar plates between visiting a range of stores. The plates were viewed after incubation and you can see the results in the enclosed video - a few surprises to say the least.


So should we be concerned with hand hygiene when out shopping?


From reviewing the evidence, a trip to the shopping mall shouldn’t be viewed as walking around a petri dish full of harmful bugs. Yet, the biggest concern is when we sit down to eat at the food court as there is a greater tendency to use our fingers rather than the plastic cutlery then bends like it has been worked on by Uri Geller (young ones might have to Goggle that one).  Therefore, before sitting down to enjoy your comfort food it is best to wash your hands and perhaps, avoid picking up that straw which accidently dropped on the floor.



  • CHIA, C. F., CHANG, T. C. & TSOU, C. L. 2006. In-depth investigation of escalator riding accidents in heavy capacity MRT stations. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 38, 662-670.
  • D'SOUZA, Y., CADIEUX, B., COLAVECCHIO, A., RESHMI, R., GOODRIDGE, L., LO, A. & VEEDA, P. 2015. Assessment of microbial quality at four food courts in the Greater Montreal area. Journal of Food Protection, 78, 110-110.
  • DINGSDAG, S. & COLEMAN, N. V. 2013. Bacterial communities on food court tables and cleaning equipment in a shopping mall. Epidemiology and Infection, 141, 1647-1651.
  • GERBA, C. P., WUOLLET, A. L., RAISANEN, P. & LOPEZ, G. U. 2016. Bacterial contamination of computer touch screens. American Journal of Infection Control, 44, 358-360.
  • MARTINEZ-BASTIDAS, T., CASTRO-DEL CAMPO, N., MENA, K. D., LEON-FELIX, J., GERBA, C. P. & CHAIDEZ, C. 2014. Detection of pathogenic micro-organisms on children's hands and toys during play. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 116, 1668-1675.
  • ZHANG, M., O'DONONGHUE, M. & BOOST, M. V. 2012. Characterization of staphylococci contaminating automated teller machines in Hong Kong. Epidemiology and Infection, 140, 1366-1371.


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