Special Report: Germs in the mail

Just how clean are the discs from Netflix?
Just how clean are the discs from Netflix?

EAST TEXAS (KLTV) - Rent what you want, watch when you want, and exchange as often as you want...the idea is catching on.  Netflix now boasts 11.1 million subscribers.  That's a lot of people, who may or may not be washing their hands as often as you'd like.

We, literally, put Netflix under the microscope.

We delivered six different sealed Netflix envelopes, with six different Netflix DVD's inside to the pathology lab at the University of Texas Health Science Center of Tyler.

For help with our experiment, we went to Dr. Richard Wallace who is board certified in infectious diseases.

"My biggest concern for the DVD's would be the community MRSA that people pick up," he explained.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a potentially deadly bacteria that resists certain antibiotics. It starts with skin infections that can penetrate the body and spread to the bones, joints, and bloodstream. The infections cause about 20,000 deaths each year in the U.S.

We began our test by unsealing each Netflix envelope. We removed each disk from its sleeve, and the lab supervisor swabbed them front and back. Once each petri-dish was swabbed, the plates were placed inside an incubator.

A few days later, we found at least four different kinds of bacteria growing inside the plates. But it wasn't what Dr. Wallace expected.

"They were fairly clean," said Wallace. "If I took my fingers and laid them on the top of the plates, this is what you'd grow."

As for the disks themselves, Wallace said he found nothing that could potentially cause disease.

Steve Swasey, vice president of communications with Netflix, said on a typical day, more than 2 million DVD's pass through 58 distribution centers across the country. He said associates remove each movie and wipe them down with window cleaner so that they are clean and in good playing condition for the next user.

Swasey said Netflix replaces the sleeves when they're too worn, or stained.

So we moved on to a second experiment.   We swabbed each sleeve, front and back, and those plates joined the others inside the incubator.

The results?

"The sleeves were as contaminated, or more contaminated than the disks," said Dr. Wallace.  "This is pretty good compared to a lot of other things that could be heavily contaminated."

But, Dr. Wallace said no news is not necessarily good news.

We only tested six movies and six sleeves--a small sampling.

"This doesn't mean that they couldn't pick up any bacteria here, or any bacteria that's dangerous, we just didn't see any," he explained.

Netflix said it was not surprised by the findings.  Swasey said his company goes to great lengths to make sure its disks are clean and playable for subscribers.

Netflix expects a million more users by next year, and has plans to go global with their service in 2010.

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