UK consumer watchdog and publication group Which? recently conducted a survey at their own offices that revealed some computer keyboards had dangerously high levels of bacteria normally associated with a toilet.

It was brave of the consumer group to reveal this information, but they did so because they think their offices are probably typical of many workplaces where people use computers every day, without thinking too much about how and when to clean them or the risks they take by touching surfaces such as computer mice, screens and keyboards shared with lots of other people.

This is what they did.

They invited microbiologist James Francis (from Carlisle based Kingmoor Technical Services) to swab 30 keyboards and a toilet door handle and a toilet seat at the Which? London office. They reported his findings in a Which? report in their 1st May issue.

Most of the keyboards and the toilet door handles passed the hygiene test, but Francis found 4 of the keyboards were so infested with germs they posed a health hazard that could give someone a bad stomach upset; two of them had "warning" levels of staphylococcus aureus, and one had 150 times the safe limit of bacteria, and was 5 times dirtier than the toilet seat. Francis suggested this keyboard be removed from the office, as a precaution.

Francis, who has been working as a microbiologist for over 20 years, said:

"That keyboard is increasing the risk of its user becoming ill."

"I haven't seen a reading like that in a very long time. It was off the scale," he added.

Dr Mark Enright, a microbiologist with Imperial College London agreed.

"You shouldn't have gut bacteria on a keyboard," he said.

Francis carried out tests for:
  • Enterobacteriaceae: these live in the stomachs of humans and other animals.
  • Coliform: these are found all around us in the earth, soil and air and are associated with feces.
  • Escherichia Coli (E Coli): these are members of the coliform family, originate in feces, and indicate poor hygiene.
  • Staphylococcus Aureus: occurs on human skin and causes skin infections and food poisoning if ingested.
The main cause of a germ-ridden keyboard is eating lunch at your desk, said the Which? report, because bits of food that get into the keys are ideal breeding ground for millions of bacteria.

The second cause is using the keyboard without washing your hands after going to the toilet or rest room, and a third cause is dust, because this traps moisture and makes the food-ridden keyboard even more appealing to bacteria.

The consumer group polled 4,000 of their online members in January and February 2008 and asked them how often they cleaned their computer. 11 per cent said they never cleaned their keyboard and 20 per cent said they never cleaned their mouse. 13 per cent said they never cleaned their laptop, while 25 per cent said they cleaned it every month.

Another potential source of infection is earphones and headphones. When these are shared among users they can spread germs and even head lice, said Which?

Click here for detailed instructions on how to keep your computer and accessories clean and germ free (Which?).

Sources: Which?.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD