Just when you think you are safe, a new problem crops up. According to an online article from Computerworld (by Mike Elgan, October 13, 2006 - see link below) our computers are not only vulnerable to cyber viruses but are also a breeding ground for natural world viruses, fungi and bacteria.
In addition to sneezing without covering your nose and mouth with a handkerchief and coughing without covering your mouth, the most common way germs are passed around is by touching with our hands. Germs get passed around when you shake hands with another person or when you touch things that other people have touched. For some reason, not explained in the article, bacteria, fungi and viruses can only survive on a person's hands for about five minutes, but can live very well on a keyboard, mouse, cell phone or other object for up to two days.
According to studies done by the University of Arizona, the following objects are the biggest collecters and spreaders of germs: telephones (especially cell phones), desktop surfaces, keyboards, mice, Fax machines, photocopiers and toilet seats in that order. Cell phones are worse than desk phones because we tend to keep them in our pockets where it is nice and warm, which is just what germs need to breed fast. In fact, according to the studies, cell phones have 400 times more germs than toilet seats (maybe cell phones should come with little signs like they have in the bathrooms of restaurants instructing the user to wash their hands after each call). Since germs are passed from our hands as we touch things and, since we continually touch the phone, cell phone, keyboard, mouse and tops of our desks, we continually move the germs from one place to another. As the germs are already breeding on each of these surfaces, there are always new ones to move on to the next object as well as passing on those that have been born on our hands in the past five minutes. In addition to our hands replenishing or adding to the germ supply on desktops, keyboards, mice and phones, our habit of eating at our desks also provides nourishment for the little critters. It seems the greese, crumbs, partially melted chocolate, etc. that can be found on our fingers as we eat pizza, potato chips, popcorn, candy, etc. while working is excellent food for the germs.
While reading the first half of the article describing the cesspool we apparently work in every day, little voices kept nagging at my brain saying there were some problems with this analysis.
First of all, compared to other parts of the world and to past ages, our offices are rather sterile. While I don't care for it or recommend it as a life style, the human race has survived in far worse conditions. Humans are rather hardy and have immune systems that will fight off many diseases if the immune system is allowed to work. However, to work, immune systems must get to know what's out there and design defenses based on that knowledge. One fear of too sterile an environment would be the lack of opportunity to develop immunity and then find ourselves sucumbing to the first mild disease we encounter.
Second, according to the article, the source of the germs is us. Yes, we can pass germs among ourselves, but the majority of the germs breeding on my keyboard, desk phone, mouse and cell phone are from me. The article clearely states that we can only get sick if the germs enter our bodies. To do this we either have to inhale them as they float around in the air following someone else's uncovered sneeze or cough, or place them in our mouth or noses. Now, while it may take a team of University of Arizona scientists to count and compare the number of germs on a telephone (25, 127 per square inch - these fellows are very precise) with those on a toilet seat (49 per square inch - they apparently have very good janitors at the U of A), your average mother (at least those of my Mother's generation) could have told you basically the same thing (while they lacked the precise numbers of germs, their "because I said so!" was sufficient scientific evidence for us). While the author dipliomatically states "You get sick when germs enter your body -- usually through your mouth or nose, and those germs usually are delivered there by your hands.", our mothers were more blunt, telling us "Don't put your fingers in your mouth or nose or you will get sick." Another admonition from our mothers was to "wash your hands after going to the bathroom", "wash your hands before eating", and "wash your hands before preparing or serving food". Also, most homes had strict rules against consuming food outside the kitchen or dining room. While science is important, maybe we should put some more emphasis on literature in our school curriculums to give our children an appreciation of the common sense of the ages. I am sure there must be a quote about the intelligence of mothers that is similar to the one that is attributed (most question whether he actually said or wrote this, but everyone has come to associate Twain with this comment) to Mark Twain's famous comment about fathers that goes - When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant that I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at what the old man had learned in seven years.
However, for those never listened to their mothers or forgot what she taught them, new technology is here to save you. Well, not exactly new, as the ancient Romans and generations after them used these same techniques to control germs. The technology involves the use of silver coatings on surfaces where germs are likely to thrive and breed. By using a silver coating on these surfaces they are protected since silver has antiseptic properties which kill germs that land on these surfaces. This is probably why wealthy people (and even middle class people in more recent generations) used sliver tableware for eating. It wasn't so much to show off their wealth as it was healthier (and much healthier than the wooden spoons that the poor used for eating). Modern technology has developed ways to use extremly tiny amounts of silver which both keeps the price down and gets the job done. For those who can't be bothered with washing their hands, a number of companies are now manufacturing phones, keyboards and mice whose outer surfaces are coated with a very thin film of silver. However, at only 49 germs per square inch, there does not seem to be much interest in producing silver plated toilet seats.
See the link below which will take you to the article which has links to websites of companies selling silver coated phones, mice and keyboards.