Every college student who’s ever been involved in a beer pong game knows that it isn’t sanitary. But do you really want to know what kinds of bacteria are swimming around those slimy ping-pong balls and Solo cups? Seniors Aaron Heffner and Ben Morrissey did.
Heffner and Morrissey are lab partners in their microbiology class and decided to put the game of beer pong, and the bacterial populations that come along with it, under a microscope for a class experiment.
“Our professor told us in the beginning that he values creativity above all, and there’s never been any research done on this before, even though it is a pretty major part of the average college student’s life,” Morrissey said.
In beer pong – also known as Beirut – two teams stand across from each other at a long table and try to throw ping pong balls into a triangle formation of cups filled partially with beer. Every time a team makes a throw into a cup, it puts them closer to winning the game and the other team has to drink.
Both Heffner and Morrissey said their starting hypothesis was that they were going to find a lot of bacteria in a typical game.
“It was pretty obvious what we were going to find. It’s pretty clear that beer pong isn’t exactly a clean game, between people drinking out of the same cups, and the ball falling on the floor,” Heffner said.
So to test their hypothesis Heffner and Morrissey set up their own game of beer pong, had eight people play for three hours, going through about a 30-pack of beer before ending the night and letting the bacteria settle.
“We used brand-new balls and cups so that nothing would have any sort of bacteria on it before the game,” Heffner said.
Heffner and Morrissey returned to the table the next morning to gather their test tubes and observed them under the microscope. Heffner and Morrissey said the results were startling – every single test tube had bacteria in it.
Heffner said that from one night’s worth of playing the typical college drinking game, they found high levels of a bacterial family that contains such species as E. coli, pneumonia and salmonella.
All of the bacteria that was discovered had the same potential effects – most would result in flu-like symptoms such as vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and possibly fever that could keep you in bed for days, Heffner and Morrissey said. The water cup was the by far the most bacteria-infested, and had the largest growth of bacteria in its test tube, they said.
“There would be no long-term effects if you were to get sick from playing, just a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics,” Heffner said.
However, they said that being infected by the bacteria is a matter of chance – it depends on the environment that the bacteria is grown in and a healthy person is less likely to get sick than someone who isn’t healthy. In their experiment game, no one developed any flu-like symptoms afterwards.
“It all depends on the situation,” Morrissey said. “If you haven’t been eating well, your immune system would be more susceptible, for example, or in situations where you’re more tired, there is more of a chance that you could get sick.”
However, Heffner and Morrissey said that their goal isn’t to discourage college students from playing beer pong. “Obviously we’re not being very serious about this. Keep playing but beware of the risks,” Heffner said.
But they did offer some advice for the health-conscious beer-ponger – in order to minimize the amount of bacteria involved in the game, the more you change the water cup, the better. Also, they suggested players have their own drinking cup and pour their beer from the game cup into there so they aren’t sharing with other people.
“There is no reason our report should prevent you from getting drunk,” Morrissey said. “But we’re happy to be breaking ground in the evolutionary field of drinking game biology.”