What Germs Are Lurking in Your Office?

April 30, 2005 — -- Heather Wright works at a Manhattan publishing company, and her workplace is much like most people's -- with a kitchen that has a disturbing aroma coming from the fridge, a co-worker who's a neat freak and another who has a little more clutter.

Many of Wright's co-workers congregate in her office. She has the most space and a candy basket. She also has lots of invisible unwelcome guests.

University of Arizona microbiologist Dr. Chuck Gerba swabbed Wright's office, looking for disease-causing germs.

The results weren't pretty.

Beware the Candy Basket

"Her [computer] mouse has about a hundred times more bacteria than a toilet seat," Gerba said.

What Gerba found among the bacteria was coliform -- intestinal bacteria generally found in human waste -- on the restroom handles and faucets, in the kitchen sink and sponge, and even in Wright's candy basket.

That "indicates to me somebody's not washing their hands after they're coming back from the bathroom," Gerba said.

In fact, Wright's office -- the gathering place -- had the highest bacteria counts of all her co-workers' work areas.

Wright was not pleased by the news.

"Candy bowl, done," she said. "No more candy bowls. That's it. Get your own chocolate. I'm done. I'm cutting everyone off."

Clutter-Free Doesn't Mean It's Clean

Even the office clean freak -- whose desk generally was clean -- had a filthy keyboard.

The most cluttered desk, on the other hand, had the least bacteria.

"Clutter doesn't mean a lot of germs," Gerba said. "Actually, to a large degree, it's the amount of activity and the number of people that are coming in there."

That's why Gerba found hundreds of thousands of bacteria on hot spots like a printer button and the button for the first floor in the elevator, touched by hundreds of fingers each day.

While none of the bacteria Gerba found was life-threatening, they could lead to more colds and flu. His advice is to use disinfecting wipes on your desk, phone and keyboard and hand sanitizers frequently.

"But don't become a real paranoid about germs," Gerba said.

Easier said than done.

"The thought of it will really make you crazy," Wright said after seeing the bacteria colonies living in her office. "I'm gonna wipe it and clean it and try to make sure I do it every day. It's disgusting."