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Germs are often a phone call away

Having often wondered whether the mixed nuts served at bars and restaurants are coated with wasabi or fungi, I decided to read up on the risks I was running each time I reached for communal masala peanuts. Sanchita Sharma reports.

columns Updated: May 18, 2013 23:15 IST

Having often wondered whether the mixed nuts served at bars and restaurants are coated with wasabi or fungi, I decided to read up on the risks I was running each time I reached for communal masala peanuts.

The upside was that most studies very rarely found traces of faeces and urine in shared bar snacks, but every study on contamination that I came across showed that touch was the most common ways of spreading infection.

For, wherever your hand goes, so does infection. Many of us are careful about using sanitisers or washing up after being in public spaces, such as airplanes, public transport, restaurants, movie halls and public loos, but dangerous levels of killer bacteria flourish in places that you think are as sanitised as the home of an obsessive compulsive homemaker.

Apart from bacterial hotspots such as currency notes and coins, elevator buttons, door knobs, handrails and ATMs, you could contact more germs from sharing cellphones, androids, touchpads and keyboards than if someone sneezed directly in your face.

Much of the office equipment people share at work are often filthier and more bacteria-infested than toilet seats and door handles of public toilets. Which is saying something, given the giveaway stench that leads you away from public toilets in India even before you spot them.

If you touch a screen or keyboard, 30% of the germs on it end up on your fingertips, from where it may go to your eyes, mouth or nose and cause all sorts of infections, reports a study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

British researchers report that nearly all cell phones and office desk phones had some degree of bacterial growth, with some cellphones having 18 times more bacteria than a flush handle in a typical men’s restroom. They found 15% of cellphones has bacteria known to cause infection, such as the dreaded E coli that causes diarrhoea, stomach cramps, fever and loss of appetite, and S aureus, which can cause skin infections, such as boils and abscesses. Another study found that 16% of shared office phones had traceable faecal matter on them.

A study in the US found office keyboards with dangerous levels of coliform bacteria that are found in the faeces and cause gastroenteritis.

One of the keyboards tested had to be discarded because it was five times dirtier than the toilet seat and home to 150 times the acceptable limit of bacteria.

This week, a study in the UK found that women’s handbags, irrespective of the price, are contaminated with more bacteria than the average toilet.

Tests showed that one in five handbag handles was home to sufficient bacteria to pose a risk to human health, with swabs showing that the face or hand cream were most bacteria-ridden items, followed by lipstick and mascara. Leather handbags were the most likely to contain the most bacteria, because the spongy material is a perfect breeding ground, according to the study.

Most germs can live on hard surfaces for 12 to 24 hours. Trapped moisture (germs need at least 10% humidity to survive) and warmth — be it cellphones, handbags, keyboards or office chairs — provide ideal conditions for bacterial growth. Any sort of nutrients-food particles, such as skin cells, blood or mucus, helps germs thrive, which is why the wet kitchen sponge is a favourite haunt, as are electronic devices becuase of the heat they generate.

Experts recommend cleaning hard surfaces with antibacterial wipes at least a couple of times a week, including the inside of your purses, which should then be dried out.

Of course, you can clean just that much, so the best protection remains washing your hands with soap and water, especially before eating and after contact with shared objects, and avoiding touching the face and mouth as much as possible. I think I’ll stop now to disinfect my iPad and clean my hands.

First Published: May 18, 2013 23:02 IST