How many Americans are getting sick from using public touch screens?
February 24, 2015 10:28 PM   Subscribe

This question came to me as a result of seeing staplers with antibacterial tops at an office retailer. What's next - anti microbial doorknobs? As I thought about the number of touch screens I use during the day - ATMs, debit card machines, etc, - and the fact I've never seen anyone cleaning them, it occurred to me they are probably far germier than office equipment.

Does anyone keep track of the number of people in the US who catch communicable infections such as colds, flu and gastrointestinal upsets from touch screens? What are the numbers? If not, why not, since this has all the makings of a story that I can envision sweeping daytime TV, news aggregators on the Web and what used to be called housewives' magazines like an epidemic?
posted by ADave to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I don't believe there is any way that information could possibly be tracked. How could you possibly know which surface you touched in the course of several days is the one that gave you the cold or flu?

And this situation is why they tell you to wash your hands often, especially during cold and flu season, and to never touch your face unless you've just washed your hands.
posted by erst at 10:45 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Avoid Union Station in Washington DC.
posted by Sunburnt at 10:45 PM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh, and apparently germ-killing touchscreens ARE a thing, now.
posted by erst at 10:48 PM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

For all you worried Americans obsessed with germs....

Soon into the SARS epidemic here in Hong Kong in 2003, it became commonplace not to touch the handrails of escalators. Disposable pocket tissues became an intermediary between hand and pole on buses, ferries and the Mass Transit Railway. The edge of a credit card or tip of a key were brought into fresh employment and used to press an elevator button. In Hong Kong, we travel a lot, commute even, by elevator. One's (clothed) sleeve or shoulder began to be used to push open shopping mall and restaurant doors. However a lot of people stopped recreational shopping or eating out.

What else? Local banks took to covering ATM keypads with disposable plastic covers, replaced every hour. We have lots and lots of ATMs. Retailers took to regularly wiping down doors and door knobs. Did it save any lives? Impossible to say. But there was a lot of hysteria floating around and taking such measures seemed prudent.
posted by Mister Bijou at 11:13 PM on February 24, 2015 [9 favorites]

Before he passed away, the facilities manager at my old job related a bit of wisdom to me about how he kept an eye out for janitors and encouraged them to stay at home if they were sick, as their job requires them to go from room to room. Not many think in the white collar world about the cleaning staff, but even as they handle lots of things in the office place that can make them sick, their travels from place to place make them ideal carriers for common pathogens, even when healthy.

Short of putting tracking devices on people, it is normally difficult to connect an infection to one person. We can carry all kinds of pathogens around with us and yet remain healthy, despite being contagious, so even if a particular touchscreen was a vector for disease, you'd have to track down every single person that used the ATM within a two to four day span — the time it takes for common infections to kick in, roughly — and do testing on many of them.

It's just not practical to do when the cure for a cold or flu is usually just a few days of rest and hydration.
posted by a lungful of dragon at 12:15 AM on February 25, 2015

Touching germy surfaces doesn't make you sick. Not washing your hands before you touch your food or face makes you sick.
posted by chiquitita at 3:36 AM on February 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Mod note: Quick reminder: please stick to helping to answer the question rather than having a general discussion about the topic of germs, etc. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 4:56 AM on February 25, 2015

Surely if people weren't touching the touch screens they'd be touching something else - a pen on a chain, or another person's hand, or a button instead of a touchscreen (the ATMs I use mostly seem to use buttons still, not touch screens). I doubt the touchscreen is any more of a germ vector than just, you know, life in general.

Like, I use a touchscreen to top up my subway fare card... is that more germy than the handful of tokens I would have gotten 10-15 years ago? My visceral reaction is no, but I admittedly have no data.
posted by mskyle at 5:53 AM on February 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

What's next - anti microbial doorknobs?

This is one property of copper and copper compounds for door knobs and handles, yes.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:09 AM on February 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Every time I look into this, I'm a bit surprised by how little seems to be known about actual transmission of actual germs in real life. You get a lot about transmission via X is possible or Y type of germ can live up to Z hours on Q surface, and so on. But little about, which chain of transmission is, in real life, more or less likely to actually cause infection.

So if anyone can fill us in on solid research in this arena, it would be very helpful.

But this summary from the Mayo Clinic seems to have the gist:
It's possible to catch the flu or a cold after handling an object an infected person sneezed or coughed on a few moments ago. But personal contact with an infected person — such as a handshake or breathing in droplets from a cough or sneeze — is the most common way these germs spread.

The best way to avoid becoming infected with a cold or flu virus is to wash your hands frequently with soap and water or with an alcohol-based sanitizer. Also avoid rubbing your eyes or biting your nails.
And this seems to be a fairly good summary of the situation from the University of Arizona.
posted by flug at 7:21 AM on February 25, 2015

Best answer: Anec-data for you:

Our health department in this town is...well...aggressive. For a while I was working in a busy deli, and the way the company addressed the combo of health-department rules + safety issues was...vexing. Like, I had to wear kevlar gloves to operate the slicer, only use one kind of meat per slicer (like beef or pork or chicken), sanitize the slicer hourly, change gloves between every kind of meat touched, AND wear those vinyl gloves OVER my kevlar gloves. Sanitize the work surface between every customer, dates and labels and temperatures and hold times all over the place. It occurred to me one day that there was one device that was touched after EVERY meat or cheese, after EVERY customer, and MAYBE washed at the end of the day but I never saw anyone but me clean it...the PLU/Scale. Gross. Edit: I don't mean the part where the meat sits, I mean the keypad. The platform was always papered and was washed regularly.

So...I mentioned it to my manager, she said not to worry about it. (This company is VERY serious about customer experience.) I took it to the store manager, he said not to worry about it. I mentioned it to the union rep, she checked into it and said not to worry about it. I'm actually friends with one of the head (and most ridiculous) inspectors, and HE said not to worry about it. So...I stopped worrying about it, assuming other people know better than I.
posted by TomMelee at 7:52 AM on February 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Every bank I've ever worked for asked employees to wipe down ATMs. This does not mean it is necessarily being done on a regular basis or with germ-killing cleaning materials, but it's being done.

Freestanding ATMs serviced by armored cars, however, I really can't imagine ever being wiped down.
posted by Juliet Banana at 8:02 AM on February 25, 2015

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