Which instrument is the dirtiest in the band? A study has shown that it’s the clarinet that tends to harbour the most bacteria and fungi.

As the school year winds up and students at primary schools all over the country are playing their Christmas concerts and returning their rented concert band instruments, a study published by the Academy of General Dentistry in the USA has been doing the rounds online. The study, which appeared in the March/April 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed General Dentistry, found used woodwind instruments to be heavily contaminated with bacteria and fungi related to minor to serious infectious and allergic diseases.

Clarinet, Dirtiest Instrument, BacteriaThe clarinet was found to harbour the most bacteria in a 2011 study published in General Dentistry.

“Many children participate in their school’s band ensemble and often the instruments they play are on loan,” said Dr R. Thomas Glass, lead author of the study. “Most of these instruments have been played by other students, and without the proper sanitation, bacteria and fungi can thrive for weeks and even months after the last use.”

The researchers examined 13 instruments of a high school band, six of which had been played within the previous week and seven that hadn’t been playing in a month, discovering 442 different bacteria, 58 moulds and 19 yeasts.

“Parents may not realise that the mould in their child’s instrument could contribute to the development of asthma,” said Glass.

The clarinet was the worst offender. “The woodwinds seemed to be easier to contaminate. It has to do with the fact they are not made of metal and allow for the accumulation of the bacteria, yeast and fungi,” Glass The Star at the time.

A year after the study was published, the dangers of a dirty clarinet were brought home to one clarinet player, a 68-year-old from Atlanta, US, who suffered from the (perhaps misnamed) condition known as “saxophone lung” – a type of hypersensitivity pneumonia. The clarinettist (who hadn’t cleaned his instrument for 30 years, according to a report by NBC) developed the condition, which is essentially an allergic reaction to a fungus that grows inside wind instruments.

The player’s symptoms didn’t respond to inhalers, steroids or antibiotics and a chest X-ray showed the his lungs were full of mucus and blockages – researchers discovered he was allergic to two fungi and that his clarinet reed was also contaminated with the mould Exophiala. With oral steroids and a clean clarinet, the player’s health improved dramatically.

While even the laxest primary school clarinet player is unlikely (one would hope!) to go 30 years without cleaning their instrument, it’s a cautionary tale for wind players of any age. Keep those instruments clean!