| Your Keyboard Is Dirtier Than a Toilet
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
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
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
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
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
"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."