Your Keyboard: Dirtier Than a Toilet

How dirty is your Qwerty?

It turns out that your computer keyboard could put a host of potentially harmful bacteria -- including E. coli and staph -- quite literally at your fingertips.

Sure, it may sound like a hypochondriac's excuse to stay away from the office. But a growing body of research suggests that computer mice and keyboards are, in fact, prime real estate for germs.

It's a phenomenon most recently illustrated by tests at a typical office environment in the United Kingdom. A consumer advocacy group commissioned the tests in which British microbiologist James Francis took a swab to 33 keyboards, a toilet seat and a toilet door handle at the publication's London office in January.

Francis then tested the swabs to see what nasty germs he managed to pick up. He found that four of the keyboards tested were potential health hazards -- and one had levels of germs five times higher than that found on the toilet seat.

While the results of this simple test cannot necessarily be applied to the rest of the computer keyboards in the United Kingdom -- or in this country, for that matter -- the findings are in line with a considerable body of research suggesting that our daily routines put us in near constant contact with potentially dangerous germs.

And health officials have taken notice. In January, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that a norovirus outbreak at a Washington, D.C., elementary school in February 2007 that sickened more than 100 may have been spread through contaminated computer equipment.

Specifically, according to an article in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a computer mouse and keyboard in one first-grade classroom tested positive for the virus, which is linked to a disease commonly called stomach flu.

"This outbreak is the first report of norovirus detected on a computer mouse and keyboard, which highlights the possible role of computer equipment in disease transmission and the difficulty in identifying and properly disinfecting all possible environmental sources of norovirus during outbreaks," noted the authors of the Jan. 4 article in the discussion section of the report.

Other research has detected a host of different, potentially disease-causing germs on everything from doorknobs to paper money.

But Is It a Problem?

Considering how often we come into contact with keyboards, it should come as little surprise that the keys and spaces in between are a convenient haven for bacteria and other microbes.

"Keyboards are clearly contaminated," says Dr. Pascal James Imperato, distinguished service professor, chairman of the department of preventive medicine and community health, and director of the master of public health program at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in New York City.

"Computer keyboards are fairly recent in terms of widespread use," he added. "So there have probably been not too many studies done to check on the level of contamination of keyboards."

Still, considering the widespread nature of these bugs' habitats, the question remains as to whether the presence of potentially harmful microbes on surfaces such as a computer keyboard normally poses a health threat.

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