What's the dirtiest part of the office?

Monday, May 21, 2007
Did you know that almost half of us spend our lives driving a desk for a living?

Our reporter, Jessica Rowe, is on a search and destroy mission to find all those office germs and work out which are the worst.

It's no surprise that germs get passed around. After all, we breathe the same air-conditioned air, share bathrooms and kitchens and when one of us catches a cold, chances are the rest of us will, too.

So what's passing the germs on?

The test

Jessica's armed with a bunch of swabs — one for every suspect surface in the office we might touch every day.

Jess: This phone belongs to one of our producer's, Kate — she's always on it, so I'm sure there will be quite a bit of bacteria. Other people use the phone as well so I can't just blame her!

The humble door handle will probably have a few nasties and if there was ever a place for germs to multiply, it's the photocopier.

The toilet door is surely another black spot and under our shoes could be shockers too.

Jess (shaking her keyboard): Ooh, now this is not looking good. I do often eat my lunch over my keyboard … I'm a little anxious about what the results are going to reveal. I'm going to take a swab and let's see.

Jess also must not forget the mouse. One more potentially repulsive gadget is the mobile phone.

Next stop is the University of New South Wales to meet doctoral student, Molecular Biologist, Hannah Root.

Jess: Hi Hannah I've got this delivery for you, now tell me, how are you going to test them?
Hannah: Well what I'll do is open up the swabs and streak them out onto bacterial media, grow them at 37 degrees, because that's the temperature of the body, and we'll wait two or three days and see what grows.

Results

It's time to head back to the lab at the University of New South Wales to see what nasties have incubated from those samples.

Jess: I've been sweating over these results for the past three days. I've been scrubbing myself like mad trying to be bacteria-free. What have you found for the toilet door?
Hannah: We actually found quite a bit of E.coli on the toilet door and the cubicle door.

E.coli can cause severe abdominal cramping and diarrhoea, so you really don't want faecal bacteria like them being passed around the office! Let's face it, all you have to do to give yourself a big dose of them is touch the toilet door, then touch your mouth with your hands.

"The phone is interesting as well. You'd think more respiratory disease could be transmitted between a phone. But again, not dangerous levels, but something to remember," says Hannah.

Four of our other samples fared quite well: shoe, photocopier, door handle, lift button.

But what takes the prize as the office gadget you most want to avoid?

Jess: What is the most germy part of our office?
Hannah: I think the keyboard is the winner. Because of the different types of bacteria, how much we found and the fact that we did find a lot of E.coli on the keyboard as well and it's kind of interesting to see that the keyboard plate looks very similar to the toilet door plate. So I think the keyboard's the winner.

So it turns out your keyboard is the most toxic, E.coli-ridden gadget in the office. Thankfully, most of the germs won't do too much harm. But if you share a phone or a computer on a regular basis, the key is wiping them down with disinfectant — and do it every couple of days, because viruses like flu can survive on keyboards and phones for up to three days.

But don't bother with those antibacterial cleaning sprays. A 2005 trial found that households that use them have the same rate of infection as those that don't.

Conclusion

So what's the best way to keep yourself bacteria-free? Stick with the tried and true method — wash your hands often and avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes.

Fast facts

  • Which is the most germ-ridden surface? The toilet bowl or the desktop? Sorry to tell you, it's the desktop. In fact, the average desktop has 400 times more bacteria than a toilet bowl. Think about that next time you drop a piece of food on your desk and pop it in your mouth!


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