Fighting the Flu - Is your desk making you sick?
By David Williams
NOVEMBER. 13, 2006 (www.cnn.com) -- In the peak of cold and flu season, many Americans may want to hide at their desks to avoid those hacking and sneezing co-workers. But health experts say that could be the very place that makes them sick.
A study by the University of Arizona in 2002 found the typical worker's desk has hundreds of times more bacteria per square inch than an office toilet seat. If that's not disturbing enough, desks, phones and other private surfaces are also prime habitats for the viruses that cause colds and flu.
Bacteria, single-celled organisms, can cause strep throat, pneumonia and other conditions. They can be treated with antibiotics. However, viruses, which are smaller than bacteria, cause colds and flu and cannot be treated with antibiotics.
Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, counted bacteria on workplace surfaces for a study sponsored by The Clorox Co., makers of Clorox bleach.
Office toilet seats had 49 germs per square inch, he found. But desktops had almost 21,000 germs per square inch. Phones were worse -- more than 25,000 germs per square inch.
Desks, phones, computer keyboards and mice are key germ transfer points because people touch them so often, Gerba said, adding that coughing and sneezing can leave behind "a minefield of viruses" that can live on a surface for up to three days. But health experts say that simple office hygiene can reduce infection risks dramatically.
"We know that 80 percent of the infections you get are transmitted through the environment," Gerba said.
Wiping down work areas with disinfectant wipes every day reduces bacteria significantly, Gerba said.
But at many offices, custodians don't touch people's desks to avoid accidental misplacement or loss of important documents.
"Nobody ever cleans a desktop until they start sticking to it, from what we've found," he said. "A lot of people eat and slop on their desks all the time so it basically turns into a bacteria cafeteria during the day, and that's one of the reasons you get a lot on your desktops."
Roslyn Stone, chairwoman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Workplace Flu Prevention Group, had another low-tech recommendation -- washing your hands.
"Soap and hot water for 18 to 20 seconds as frequently as you can remember to do it is going to be your single most effective prevention tip this season," she said.
Stone also urged people not to go to work if they're sick to avoid spreading the disease to their co-workers.