Microbial Exchange via Fomites and Implications for Human Health

  • Brent StephensEmail author
  • Parham Azimi
  • Megan S. Thoemmes
  • Mohammad Heidarinejad
  • Joseph G. Allen
  • Jack A. Gilbert
Biology and Pollution (G O’Mullan and R Boopathy, Section Editors)
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Topical Collection on Biology and Pollution


Purpose of Review

Fomites are inanimate objects that become colonized with microbes and serve as potential intermediaries for transmission to/from humans. This review summarizes recent literature on fomite contamination and microbial survival in the built environment, transmission between fomites and humans, and implications for human health.

Recent Findings

Applications of molecular sequencing techniques to analyze microbial samples have increased our understanding of the microbial diversity that exists in the built environment. This growing body of research has established that microbial communities on surfaces include substantial diversity, with considerable dynamics. While many microbial taxa likely die or lay dormant, some organisms survive, including those that are potentially beneficial, benign, or pathogenic. Surface characteristics also influence microbial survival and rates of transfer to and from humans. Recent research has combined experimental data, mechanistic modeling, and epidemiological approaches to shed light on the likely contributors to microbial exchange between fomites and humans and their contributions to adverse (and even potentially beneficial) human health outcomes.


In addition to concerns for fomite transmission of potential pathogens, new analytical tools have uncovered other microbial matters that can be transmitted indirectly via fomites, including entire microbial communities and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Mathematical models and epidemiological approaches can provide insight on human health implications. However, both are subject to limitations associated with study design, and there is a need to better understand appropriate input model parameters. Fomites remain an important mechanism of transmission of many microbes, along with direct contact and short- and long-range aerosols.


Microbiology Built environment Contamination Infectious disease transmission Aerosol Quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) 



BS and JAG were supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program on the Microbiology of the Built Environment (MoBE); BS was supported in part by an ASHRAE New Investigator Award.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Human and Animal Rights and Informed Consent

This article does not contain any studies with human or animal subjects performed by any of the authors.


Papers of particular interest, published recently, have been highlighted as: • Of importance •• Of major importance

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental EngineeringIllinois Institute of TechnologyChicagoUSA
  2. 2.Environmental Health DepartmentHarvard T.H. Chan School of Public HealthBostonUSA
  3. 3.Department of PediatricsUniversity of California San Diego School of MedicineSan DiegoUSA

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