Your Computer or Smartphone Can Make You Sick
A Species of Computer Viruses that can Make Users Sick
Just when you think you are safe, a new problem crops up.
According to a 2006 online article from Computerworld Magazine (A New Type of Virus for Your PC, by Mike Elgan, October 13, 2006) our computers are not only vulnerable to cyber viruses but are also a breeding ground for natural world viruses, fungi and bacteria.
Common Office Tools are Full of Germs
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 things 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.
The article refers to studies done by the University of Arizona, which rank the objects listed below as being the biggest collectors of germs:
- telephones (especially cell phones)
- desktop surfaces
- Fax machines
- toilet seats in that order.
Smartphone Contains More Germs Than a Toilet Seat
Cell Phones Contain the Most Germs
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 handling).
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, each time we touch one of them we not only deposit new germs from other objects recently touched as well as passing on those that have been born on our hands in the past five minutes.
Bathroom Toilet Has Fewer Germs than Our Phones and PC Keyboards
Sharing our Desktop Snacks With the Germs as we Snack our Way Through the Work Day
In addition to our hands replenishing and adding to the germ supply on desktops, keyboards, mice and phones is our habit of eating at our desks.
So, while satisfying our cravings (and contributing to the national obesity epidemic) this food also provides nourishment for the colonies of bacteria inhabiting our work area.
It seems the grease, crumbs, partially melted chocolate, etc. that can be found on our fingers as we eat pizza, potato chips, popcorn, candy, etc. while working is also excellent food for the neighboring germs.
Problem May Not be That Serious
While reading the first half of the article describing the cesspool we apparently work in every day, little voices kept nagging at my brain hinting that before going into full panic mode and arming ourselves with a full arsenal of sanitizers before entering our work spaces.
Compared to other parts of the world and to past ages, our offices and work areas are rather sterile. While I don't care for or recommend living in filth as a lifestyle choice, the fact is that 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.
Our immune systems are not perfect (if they were we would never get sick) so the human race has had to design other tools to fight and treat many diseases. But in combating one type of disease causing organisms we sometimes create a situation that allows successful attack by another disease.
So, while having some concern about the sad sanitary state of our office tools, it is probably not something that calls for losing sleep and taking drastic measures against.
Polio Epidemic Resulted from Improved Sanitation
Polio is a disease that has sickened people throughout history. But it wasn't until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that, in economically developed nations, polio changed from a mild, cold like illness in newborn babies into one which began crippling and killing large numbers of people in all age groups.
By the 1940s and early 1950s polio was reaching epidemic proportions in the United States and other developed nations.
Public health officials, doctors and medical researchers were earnestly engaged in finding ways to treat and prevent polio.
Polio Transmitted via Contact With Fecal Matter or Saliva From an Infected Person
Researchers eventually discovered that the polio virus was transmitted via contact with fecal matter or, less commonly, via saliva from an infected person.
Consuming water from sources contaminated by by fecal matter containing the disease or contact with saliva droplets from an infected person when they coughed or sneezed nearby.
Contaminated water was the most common means of contamination. Saliva droplets were less common as one had to be either close enough to inhale it or have the droplets fall on one's food, hands or objects being put into the recipients' mouths.
Immune Response Proved to be the Key to Halting the Polio Epidemic
With contaminated water being the main source of the polio virus, the Mid-Twentieth Century polio epidemic should have occurred in poor nations that lacked modern water and sewage systems. But it was in the economically advanced nations with good water and sewer systems occurred.
The key turned out to be the human immune system. Researchers discovered that polio was a common disease in infants who, except in rare instances, suffered only minor common cold like symptoms before quickly recovering with no ill effects.
Infants start life with antibodies left over from when they were in their mother's womb. Upon becoming infected with the polio virus these antibodies prevented the virus from developing to the point where death or major damage to their bodies occurred while, at the same time, giving their own immune systems sufficient time to develop a life long immunity to the polio virus.
However, improved sanitation systems prevented increasing numbers of babies from having that first experience with the polio virus while they still retained antibodies from their mothers.
The result was increasing numbers of babies growing up without having acquired immunity to the polio virus. Further complicating matters was that women who had never been sick with polio as an infant not only lacked immunity to polio but also lacked the polio fighting antibodies to pass on to their new born infants.
Fortunately, scientists, most notably Dr. Jonas Salk, developed a means to immunize people against polio thereby eliminating the need for infants to develop immunity naturally through getting the disease.
This was important since, doing away with modern sanitation may have eliminated the threat of polio but would have left people exposed to many other deadly diseases that killed far more people than polio ever did.
Most Infants in the Past Naturally Acquired Immunity to Polio
Our Mothers Knew Best
Getting back to 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 clearly 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, which is usually following someone else's uncovered sneeze or cough, or place them in our mouth or noses with our hands.
Now, while it may take a team of University scientists to count and compare the number of germs on a cell phone (according to the article, 25,127 per square inch - these fellows are very precise) with those on a toilet seat (49 per square inch - they apparently have a very good cleaning staff at the university), 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 diplomatically 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".
Don't Overlook Common Sense and the Accumulated Wisdom Humanity has Acquired Through the Ages
Before rushing to attempt to sterilize our surroundings let's take a calmer and more rational approach.
Get in the habit of washing your hands after using the restroom, before eating and when handling food. Use your work area whether it is at home or in the office for work and use the kitchen, dining room, office lunch room, a restaurant or a park bench for dining.
Keeping your hands clean will limit the number of germs you will pass on to your desk, keyboard and other things you use at work.
Yes, you will be surrounded by germs. But if you are healthy and lead a healthy lifestyle your body will be able to deal with most types of germs and, in the process of fighting them off will produce antibodies thereby increasing the strength of the body's immune system.
While science is important and helps us to better understand the world around us, we shouldn't overlook the common sense wisdom handed down through the ages to us.
© 2006 Chuck Nugent