It's the season for germs -- or at least worrying about germs.
With co-workers sneezing into your cubicle and coughing on the coffee cups, the microscopic world of bacteria and viruses can be difficult to ignore during cold and flu season. Is anything safe to touch?
Scientists and entrepreneurs are hoping to ease some of that worry with new technology -- some high tech, some low tech, several containing antimicrobial silver nanoparticles -- that can zap germs or resist bacteria and viruses from settling on their surfaces.
Still experts urge that consumers should keep a critical eye when considering these products and make informed choices before wielding the wallet.
The anti-microbials in these products can significantly kill microbes, acknowledged Dr. David Weber, an epidemiology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But both Weber and colleague Dr. William Rutala, an infectious diseases professor, question whether there are any data that demonstrate these products are effective in reducing infection rates.
Dr. Neil Fishman, director of the health-care epidemiology and infection prevention and control at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, also questions the usefulness of some of the science backing these germ-resistant items.
"One of the big problems is that in order to make the claim anti-bacterial, they can kill bacteria on a petri plate, but they don't have to demonstrate they prevent infection from person to person," Fishman said.
"A lot of my skepticism stems from a lack of clinical data," Fishman added. "I think many of these can kill bacteria. I don't know if they'll make an impact on infection, but good hand hygiene does."
We invite you to examine these seven germ-resistant products along with Fishman and Weber.
Sometimes compressed air doesn't cut it when it comes to cleaning your keyboard -- there's still a good amount of gunk left clinging to the forest of keys.
In a study commissioned by a consumer advocacy group released in May, a microbiologist from the United Kingdom tested 33 keyboards for germs and found that four of those keyboards contained bacteria posing potential health hazards.
Several manufacturers have taken this study and others like it to produce keyboards and computer mice that are more convenient to clean.
Unotron, one such company, developed a keyboard and mouse that can withstand a soap-and-water session in the sink.
"Both products are laser-welded so the case itself is sealed ... so no liquid can penetrate," said Joe Caribella, a member of the board of directors for Unotron.
In addition to being water-resistant, the keyboard and mouse have an anti-microbial embedded in the plastic.
"The silver nitrate [in the keyboard and mouse] breaks down the cell walls of bacteria," Caribella said.
Wash-friendly items are turning up in hospitals and other health-care practices, where germs are a common concern. Fishman agrees that the ability to wash a keyboard is useful in such settings, but he is less enthused about the silver nitrate.
"My bigger concern is that they get dirty, not that they be anti-microbial," Fishman said. "You don't necessarily need the anti-microbial component."