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Crumbs and germs at your fingertips lead to bug-resistant keyboards

Vendors offer new devices designed to help clean up office workspaces

September 24, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A computer keyboard can be a dirty thing, often filled with crumbs that help make it a reservoir for disease-causing germs. Ironically, keyboards have been identified as vehicles for spreading diseases inside hospitals, in particular.

But now, there seems to be increasing interest among IT vendors in doing something about the plague of dirty keyboards.

For instance, Aten Technology Inc. in Irvine, Calif., this month said it has begun applying antimicrobial nanocoating to its KVM switch devices, which are commonly used by multiple IT workers in data centers. The KVM switches –- the acronym stands for keyboard, video and mouse -– lets users control various systems from a single unit.

"The cost associated with putting this technology on our products is so negligible that it makes sense to do it without raising the cost of the product," said Keith Renty, Aten's business and product development manager.

Earlier this year, Seal Shield Corp. in Jacksonville, Fla., introduced what it described as a dishwasher-safe keyboard and began marketing it to hospitals. Seal Shield CEO Bradley Whitchurch said Dell Inc. is now offering the keyboard, which sells for about $50, as an option in its health care product line.

Whitchurch believes that interest in washable keyboards will expand into other facilities where end users share computers, such as hotels and libraries. "We feel that over time, as the public becomes more educated on this issue, every computer keyboard is a target for replacement," he said.

In hospitals, "computer keyboards are vectors for disease," said Elizabeth McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York who heads the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, a New York-based nonprofit group that advocates for cleaner and safer hospitals.

McCaughey said keyboards can help spread Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA), a type of bacteria that is resistant to  antibiotics and can cause skin infections as well as pneumonia and infections of the bloodstream or surgical wounds.

MRSA is common and can be found in office settings, but McCaughey said there is no real benefit to taking special precautions with keyboards used outside of hospitals, because people also touch shared objects such as doorknobs, banisters and bathroom surfaces. "Unless you are going to coat every surface in your work environment with an antimicrobial nanocoating, there's no reason to focus on the keyboard," she said.

Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona, has studied germs in the workplace and produced a series of entertaining and scary findings, such as the fact there are more germs on a typical ATM than there are on a public restroom door. Gerba has ranked telephones, keyboards, mouses and fax machines as the germiest objects in offices.

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