PHILADELPHIA – You’re eyeing those sweaters in the closet with impatience, itching to put them away and plunge into some major spring cleaning.
Packing, storing, dusting, swabbing.
Washing, wiping, sudsing, soaking.
It’ll feel so good.
You’ll crack open the windows and let some fresh, clean air waft through the house.
You’ll disinfect the countertops, steam the carpet, and delight in the knowledge that you’ve swept away the grunge of winter and started spring with a sparkling clean slate.
And then you’ll go off to work – where germs rule.
The maintenance staff at the office may vacuum the floor and clean the restrooms. But your desk? It’s a petri dish, baby. A cubicle of microscopic crud.
Your telephone? A bacteria bacchanal. Computer keyboard? Just plain nasty.
According to a recent study conducted by the University of Arizona, all that time you spend at the office is a veritable communion with grime.
“We spend more and more time at our desks, but we haven’t learned to bring the hygiene habits we have at home to the office,” said Charles Gerba, the microbiologist who led the research, sponsored by Clorox.
On average, he says, office workers’ hands come in contact with 10 million bacteria a day, germs that can give you the flu, a cold or intestinal disease.
And you thought it was the cafeteria food.
If you’re an accountant, a teacher or a banker, brace yourself. You are a member of the germiest professions.
In the study, teachers’ desks ranked highest in germ infestation, with 17,800 bacteria per square inch.
As comparison, Gerba says, food-service establishments with a rating over 700 are usually considered dangerously unclean.
Accountants’ desks and telephones averaged 6,030 bacteria per square inch, and bankers’, 5,400.
Remember what your father said about handling money?
Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology at Tisch Hospital in New York and author of the book “The Secret Life of Germs,” says the numbers in the Arizona study come as no surprise.
“We’re a society bathed in bacteria, and that certainly goes for the office,” he says, adding that some of the scariest things at work are those everybody touches, such as the fax machine, the copier, and the elevator buttons.
“The button for the first floor is the worst,” Tierno says. “Think about it. At the end of the day everybody touches it. Don’t reach for it anymore. Let someone else.”
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So where do newspaper journalists rank on the germy desk scale?
We swabbed six telephones and computer keyboards at The Philadelphia Inquirer – those belonging to the publisher, the editor, the sex columnist, the food editor, the metro columnist and the author of this story – and sent our samples to Gerba’s lab for inspection.
You should know that, historically, newsrooms have been a bastion of messiness. Newspapers and notebooks are stacked everywhere. Reporters and editors spend hours on the telephone and at their keyboards. People eat everything from vending machine doughnuts to gourmet meals at their desks.
So which Inquirer workspace was the worst?
Food editor Maureen Fitzgerald’s telephone led the bacteria pack, showing 4,240 per square inch. Second, this reporter’s keyboard, with 1,720 bacteria per square inch.
(Would somebody please pick my mother up off the floor? I’m sure she has fainted.)
Amanda Bennett, the editor of The Inquirer, showed the overall best rates, with 70 bacteria per square inch on her keyboard, and 40 on her phone.
“She may not spend a lot of time in her office,” Gerba speculated.
(Bennett, who recently battled a cold – and has been sneezing and coughing – for weeks, confessed that her assistant is something of a clean freak who religiously disinfects her phone several times a day.)
And Faye Flam, the sex columnist? (“I hope they don’t find any STDs,” she said when her workspace was swabbed.) Her keyboard and telephone came out relatively clean: just 680 and 560 bacteria per square inch, respectively.
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Tierno says everyone, no matter where they work, could benefit from washing their hands often and wiping their workspace with antibacterial wipes once a day.
But, he says, there’s no need to get crazy. Germs are everywhere and the human body is pretty good at fighting them. And, he says, don’t buy the line that using hand sanitizers such as Purell and Nexcare will lessen your immunity to germs.
That, he says, is hogwash.