Why phones, keyboards and mice make me sick

Some new products can help keep the flu from spreading around your office

You've got antivirus software protecting your network, PCs and workstations. Nice going! But what about the "computer viruses" Norton can't help you with?

Don't look now, but your desk and everything on it (especially your keyboard) is a horrible science project; a thriving freak show of an ecosystem teaming with nasty, microbial sea monkeys. Your cell phone is even worse.

The good news is that, in the past two years, new products have emerged that do for phones, keyboards and mice what antivirus software does for your operating system. The bad news is that you're probably not using any of them.

As an IT professional, your chances of infection -- and spreading the infection within your office -- are alarmingly high.

It's especially alarming this time of year. Flu season is upon us. Flu, or influenza, is caused by RNA viruses from the Orthomyxoviridae family. Between 5% and 20% of the U.S. population catches the flu every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu sufferers usually feel fatigue and soreness in the throat, head and elsewhere and get sick for a week or two. Most survive, but it's not fun. Some aren't so lucky. Influenza kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year unless there is a pandemic, when millions are killed. Even vaccination is no guarantee that you'll be protected.

You don't get the flu or other infections randomly. You get sick when germs enter your body -- usually through your mouth or nose, and those germs usually are delivered there by your hands.

Germs can spread through the inhalation of infected airborne sneeze droplets or through direct contact, such as by shaking hands. But some 80% of flu cases are contracted by touching an infected object.

Most germs, including the influenza virus, can survive for only about five minutes on your hands, but they can live for up to two days on phones, keyboards, mice and other surfaces.

Most people fear germs from shaking hands, flying in airplanes or touching bathroom doorknobs. But the dirtiest objects for office workers are phones, desks, keyboards and mice, which have orders of magnitude more germs than anything else you're likely to come in contact with at work.

Several studies conducted in the past few years at the University of Arizona found that telephones are the most germ-infected objects in our lives, followed by desktops, water fountain handles, microwave door handles, keyboards and mice. (Famously, these studies, headed by microbiologist Charles Gerba, revealed that keyboards have 400 times more bacteria than an average toilet seat.) Here are the relative germ densities of frequently touched office equipment:

  • Phone: 25,127 germs per square inch
  • Desktop surface: 20,961 germs per square inch
  • Keyboard: 3,295 germs per square inch
  • Mouse: 1,676 germs per square inch
  • Fax machine: 301 germs per square inch
  • Copy machine: 69 germs per square inch
  • Toilet seat: 49 germs per square inch.

As you can see, the easiest way to get sick in a public restroom is to use your cell phone in there.

Why phones, keyboards and mice are so dirty

The bacteria crawling all over your phone, keyboard and mouse right now may include hundreds of different types, including E. coli, Klebsiella pneumonia, streptococcus, salmonella and staphyloccus aureus (a.k.a. "staph").

Staph can cause anything from pimples, boils and cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin, to fatal diseases like pneumonia, meningitis, endocarditis and toxic shock syndrome. Gerba tested 25 cell phones and found staph on almost half of them. Cell phones are extra infected because we hold them against our faces, breathe on them, touch them with our filthy mitts and keep them nice and warm in our pockets.

Keyboards and mice are disgusting mainly because we eat and drink at our desks. All that food feeds and nurtures colonies of bacteria and fungi.

Making matters worse, we move our hands from keyboard, to mouse to phone and back to keyboard all day. It's the microbial circle of life.

If you're the kind of person who reads Computerworld, you're touching phones, keyboards and mice all day. Worse, as an IT professional, you're probably using multiple keyboards and mice used by others. Not only are you more exposed to bugs, but you may be one of the main spreaders of these germs in your office.

So, Typhoid Mary, what are you going to do about it?

How to protect yourself

Sure, you can clean your phone, desk, keyboard and mouse with disinfectant once in a while (don't spray anything directly on the keyboard -- use wipes), but you're likely to forget, and most disinfectant products are mildly toxic anyway. You can also buy special condoms for your cell phone, but people will talk.

A better approach is to take advantage of a new and growing mini-industry of antimicrobial phones, keyboards and mice. Most of these new gadgets are coated with material that includes modified silver, which you'll see described as "nano sliver" or "silver ion."

(One company called Unotron bucks the antimicrobial coating trend by simply making their keyboards and mice washable.

Silver has been known for millennia for its antiseptic action. The Romans used silver to keep water and food from spoiling. Today, the water tanks of ships, airplanes and spacecraft are often coated with silver to keep the water potable for months.

(Note that the use of "colloidal silver," taken internally as an "alternative medicine" and claimed by proponents as a cure for diseases like AIDS, can be dangerous, leading to argyria, or silver poisoning, and other illnesses.)

Very recently, researchers have learned how to break silver down into smaller-than-natural particles. These nano silver particles can more easily connect with and penetrate germs. Scientists have in recent years learned to fine-tune the size and concentration of silver nano particles to more effectively kill bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Unlike antibiotics, silver doesn't promote the formation of resistant superbugs. Resistance is futile.

Antimicrobial silver is increasingly used in a wide range of products, from athletic gear to food containers to underwear to hospital bed sheets.

Silver sounds expensive. But you don't have to be Howard Hughes to afford -- or want, for that matter -- silver-based germ-killing gadgets. Here are the antimicrobial cell phones, keyboards and mice, designed for consumer or business office markets, that kill germs:

Cell Phones

Samsung SGH-E620, SGH-E640, SCH-S140, SCH-869

These phones have a finish that includes nano silver.

Motorola i870

The phone uses a silver-based AgION antimicrobial coating. AgION is the brand of AgION Technologies, which makes coatings for a wide variety of products.

LG F2300

LG claims that 99.9% of all bacteria that makes contact with the phone's silver-based coating is killed within three hours.

Keyboards

Genius SlimStar 310

This keyboard is waterproof and has been dipped in an antibacterial solution and the keys are electroplated in a silver coating.

Fellowes Microban Keyboards

A wide variety of household and industrial products are coated with Microban's antimicrobial polymers. Microban is a brand of antibacterial coating based on Triclosan, rather than silver.

Although Microban has been around for decades and is used in hundreds of products, Fellowes may be the only PC peripheral maker that uses it.

Mice

Iogear Germ Free Wireless Laser Mouse

Iogear uses a titanium dioxide (TiO2) and silver (Ag) nano-particle compound to kill a broad spectrum of nasty germs.

Fellowes Microban Mice

Like Fellowes Microban-coated keyboards, their mice are dipped in the stuff. The company even sells antimicrobial mouse pads.

Elecom Corporation "M-ABUR" series USB mouse

The M-ABUR mouse may be available only in Japan.

Mike Elgan is a technology writer and former editor of Windows Magazine. He can be reached at mike.elgan+computerworld@gmail.com or his blog: http://therawfeed.com

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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