May 5, 2008 -- 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.
Dr. Aaron Glatt, president and chief executive officer of New Island Hospital in Bethpage, N.Y., and spokesperson for the Infectious Disease Society of America, conducted a test several years ago similar to the one commissioned that had him swabbing various locations within the New York City subway system.
He found that a number of surfaces there also hosted large numbers of bacteria. And he expressed little surprise that the more recent swab test showed that many nasty bacteria may call your computer keyboard home.
But as for the question of whether these bacteria pose a real health threat, Glatt says he just doesn't buy it.
"There is no surface under the sun ... that is sterile," he says. "I think we have to say that there is overwhelming evidence that this is not a danger for most people.
"People can't go crazy about the worry and concern of being exposed to bacteria."
He adds that it is little surprise that one computer keyboard out of the 33 in the swab tests showed levels of bacteria higher than on a toilet surface -- since most toilets are flushed on a fairly regular basis.
That's not to say that the germs that live on everyday surfaces cannot occasionally pose a health threat. The key, Glatt says, is whether the bacteria or viruses with which we come into contact every day have a way to get past our natural barrier to such invasions -- namely the skin.
Faced with this impermeable membrane, most germs -- even dangerous or potentially deadly ones -- must be content with living on the skin's surface. Only when they enter the body through a break in the skin or through the mouth are they afforded access to the body's more vulnerable tissues.
Best Weapon Against Bacteria: Handwashing
In a world that is literally covered in germs, most of us must learn to live with the knowledge that, at any given moment, every square inch of our bodies is covered with millions of germs, and that some of these germs have the potential to cause disease.
"The trick is to try and minimize and limit your exposure within a reasonable context," Glatt says.
And the best approach to this goal may come in the form of a bar of soap and a sink.
"Handwashing is the single best, cheapest, most effective way to limit your exposure you have throughout your life with potentially dangerous bacteria," Glatt says. "It's amazing how this basic, basic advice is ignored by huge numbers of people every day."
Still worried about your keyboard? Cleaning it regularly may be another smart solution that most currently ignore. A survey of more than 4,000 people that conducted in January and February 2008 revealed that only about half of respondents cleaned their computer keyboards at least once a month.
And while you're at it, you might as well remind your co-workers to stay clear of your gear. Imperato notes that sharing your keyboard likely makes it a much more dangerous surface when it comes to passing diseases.
"If somebody is using their own keyboard and no one else is using it, then the chances of that keyboard serving as a method of transmission is fairly small," he says. "But if we're talking about common keyboards, then there is a higher probability of transmission occurring."