The musical instruments kids play in school bands and orchestras are traveling denizens of bacteria and fungi, say the authors of a new study. Music education is great for kids, they note, but please, please wash the instruments!”

The above and more can be read here. You can also read the original study if you click on this link.

This problem isn’t just with school instruments. I have students whose reeds look moldy. Whether what I’m seeing is actually mold I haven’t a clue. It could be something else … like bacteria and yeasts, from what the dental article says.

Um … YUCK.

But I can’t recommend dipping your oboe in a soapy bath. Or anything else. I think you could probably swab it out with alcohol, but I’m not sure (nor am I sure that will kill any of the “bugs”). You can soak reeds in hydrogen peroxide, but I wouldn’t suggest letting them soak for long periods of time.

The dental study contains this sentence: “Currently, ethylene oxide is the only agent known to sterilize instruments effectively.”

Well, okay then. I looked up “ethylene oxide”:

Although it is a vital raw material with diverse applications, including the manufacture of products like polysorbate-20 and polyethylene glycol that are often more effective and less toxic than alternative materials, ethylene oxide itself is a very hazardous substance: at room temperature it is a flammable, carcinogenic, mutagenic, irritating, and anaesthetic gas with a misleadingly pleasant aroma.

(Read here.)

You can find this chemical in a lot of things (why am I finding this troubling?):


* Ethylene oxide is used mainly as a chemical intermediate in the manufacture of textiles, detergents, polyurethane foam, antifreeze, solvents, medicinals, adhesives, and other products. (1)
* Relatively small amounts of ethylene oxide are used as a fumigant, a sterilant for food (spices) and cosmetics, and in hospital sterilization of surgical equipment and plastic devices that cannot be sterilized by steam. (1)

(Read here.)

Biggest advice I can give you?: Brush your teeth and wash your hands before playing.


  1. The ‘instruments’ in the dental study are, of course, dental instruments.

    I think those of us playing wooden instruments are pretty safe; a study of wooden kitchen cutting boards vs plastic ones showed that bacteria don’t survive well on a wooden surface, but do better on a plastic one.

    Don’t know what that implies for plastic instruments, and we won’t even talk about what the pipe cleaner removes from your older reeds…

  2. Really? I thought they were talking about their study on musical instruments because of the full paragraph:

    “The current study confirmed the hypothesis that the internal components of woodwind and brass instruments and their cases harbor potentially pathogenic, opportunistic, and/or allergenic microorganisms. The study also confirmed that microorganisms can be isolated from various components throughout instruments and their cases and can be identified by routine laboratory methods. Because most of the microorganisms detected in this study are considered pathogenic, opportunistic, and/or allergenic, sterilization of the instrument is recommended on a routine basis, and definitely before an instrument is passed to a new user. Currently, ethylene oxide is the only agent known to sterilize instruments effectively.”

  3. I can definitely vouch for the disgusting-ness of reeds. In biology class a few years ago we were told to go swab things around school, label them, and test them in petri dishes for bacteria. I tested a reed about two months old that I no longer used (if I remember correctly it had a crack) but hadn’t taken out of my case yet. It had no outward signs of mold, but the bacteria that grew on the dish was as bad as any of the door-knobs or water fountains the other kids swabbed.
    Now whenever I re-use a staple I clean it out with hydrogen peroxide first.

  4. You wouldn’t believe the stuff I see coming out of reeds, Jaclyn. Or … well … maybe you would! Sometimes I have to hand a reed back to a student and say, “I can’t even look at this, much less touch it.” It’s pretty frightening, what they are willing to put in their mouths! Ack!

  5. Robert E. Harris

    Ethylene oxide is “in” lots of things because it is very reactive and so is used as a chemical intermediate in synthesis. For example, it reacts with water to form ethylene glycol (antifreeze) and there is no remaining ethylene oxide in the antifreeze. There is no free ethylene oxide in much of anything, aside from a cylinder full of the stuff.

  6. You’re right, Patty – I should read the source before I pontificate…

  7. Oh pontificate all you want. As long as you can spell that correctly I say you should go for it! 😉

  8. Thanks for the Pattiple dispensation…

  9. Ooh, I like “Pattiple” … has a nice ring to i! 😉