June 4, 2002 -- -- Say what you will about reading in the bathroom, it's not dirty — even if you're reading Playboy.
According to University of Arizona microbiologist Chuck Gerba, the average desktop is crawling with 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat. Your telephone and computer keyboard, in particular, are germ havens.
"Think about it: Desktops are rarely cleaned," Gerba says. "If you're eating at your desk, it's a veritable cafeteria for bacteria."
With June ushering in National Bathroom Reading Week, Gerba's research comes as welcome news to the millions of Americans who use their workplace commode as a library.
It turns out that newspapers and magazines aren't bacteria-friendly. Gerba says you're more likely to be contaminated by E. coli or fecal matter when you touch the sink faucet handles.
"The toilet seat has gotten a bad rap," he says. "I'm not saying you should take your office work into the bathroom or eat your lunch there. But it might be better for your health."
Officer: ‘Please Explain Why You’re Kneeling in the Men’s Room’
Gerba has spent years investigating public potties. If you think it's hard work for a microbiologist to do research in bus station bathrooms, you're right. "I was once kneeling behind a bathroom stall on some occasions and folks called the police, thinking I'm doing God knows what," he says.
"Then I have to stand up and tell the officer, 'I'm a scientist,' and he's like, 'Sure, you are.' "
In one study, Gerba and a team of other researchers attached microprocessors to toilet paper dispensers in public restrooms all over the world, concluding that Americans, by far, use more than toilet paper than any other people — seven sheets of TP for each trip to the bathroom.
The British use the least. "It could have something to do with the coarse quality of their paper," Gerba says.
The Germans and French fell somewhere in the middle. Bathroom Advertisers Sitting Pretty
If you're one of the millions of Americans who retreat to the restroom for some peace of mind, enjoy it while you can. Advertisers are knocking at the stall door, looking for a truly captive audience.
If you've seen the stray advertisement above the urinal or behind the john, you know it's the wave of the future.
"From the time he wakes up to the time he goes to bed, the average consumer sees or hears 1,600 corporate messages," says advertising expert Mark DiMassimo.
"It's harder and harder to catch people at a moment when their guard isn't up and they're able to listen. For that reason alone, advertising in public restrooms can't be ignored."
Politics Goes Straight Into the Toilet
DiMassimo Brand Advertising ran ads for Crunch Fitness in New York. Ads above urinals in bars showed men how to do one-armed push-ups as they relieved themselves. Ads in ladies' rooms instructed women how to do a proper deep-knee bend as a way to hover over a toilet seat of questionable cleanliness.
Right now, perhaps only companies with strong stomachs and healthy senses of humor will take their ad campaigns into the toilet. But DiMassimo sees the day when politicians really take their campaigns into the toilet.
As a test, during the last presidential election, DiMassimo randomly placed written statements about Al Gore and George W. Bush in several New York City restrooms.
The results — 62 percent of folks remembered the exact message in the bathroom political ads, compared to only 16 percent who remembered advertisements on a billboard, he said.
Given the nature of the Bush-Gore race, can anyone say they were surprised? Read It and Wipe: The Toilet of the Future
Two Swedish inventors recently came forward with what they considered to be the public toilet of the future — a machine built into bathroom walls that prints out news on toilet paper for handy reading and wiping.
The paper would offer the latest news, sports and weather. And when you're done reading, you just flush the paper down the toilet.
The gadget really harkens back to colonial America, when newspapers and catalogs served as toilet paper. Perhaps that seems unpleasant, but when that wasn't available our forefathers were forced to use items like corncobs and sponges.
Flush With Excitement
As we celebrate National Bathroom Reading Week, be grateful that, as least for now, there's a porcelain library in every home, office and airport.
"It's really confirmed what we've known all along," said Gordon Java, the editor of the Uncle John's bathroom book series, now in its 14th edition. "There's no place safer than your own bathroom."
And as another bathroom scribe, Greta Garbage, put it: "I'm flush with excitement."
Buck Wolf is entertainment producerat ABCNEWS.com. The Wolf Files ispublished Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice whena new column is published, join the e-maillist.