What do gas pump handles, ATM buttons, mailbox handles and escalator rails have in common in the USA? As the flu season approaches, you may wish make a note of this: they are amongst the most germ-ridden and dirtiest surfaces that Americans touch every day, according to tests carried out in six US major cities recently. The results of the tests were announced to the press earlier today, Tuesday 25 October.

As part of its Healthy Workplace Project, the hygiene products and services company Kimberly-Clark Professional, had trained hygienists go round swabbing frequently touched surfaces in high traffic locations in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami and Philadelphia.

Using a Hygiena System SURE II ATP Meter, the hygienists swabbed and analyzed a total of 350 surfaces.

The meter tests for levels of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). ATP is commonly used in food hygiene as a quick measure of cleaning quality for surfaces. Used for transporting chemical energy between cells, ATP is present in all animal, vegetable, bacteria, yeast and mold cells, and its presence indicates contamination by any of these.

If you touch a surface with an ATP reading of 300 or higher, you are thought to be at a high risk of getting sick from a transmitted illness, according to a press statement from Kimberly-Clark Professional.

The tests revealed that the following surfaces had ATP counts of 300 or more:

  • 71% of gas pump handles,
  • 68% of mailbox handles,
  • 43% of escalator rails,
  • 41% of ATM buttons,
  • 40% of parking meters and kiosks,
  • 35% of crosswalk buttons, and
  • 35% of vending machine buttons.

Dr. Charles Gerba, Professor of Microbiology at the University of Arizona, said these tests show how important it is to keep hands and surfaces clean: people don’t realize how many germs they are exposed to as they go to and from work every day and touch things like gas pump handles and escalator rails.

“Most cold and flu viruses are spread because people touch surfaces in their immediate area and then touch their faces, other objects and other people. Washing and drying your hands frequently throughout the day, can help prevent your risk of getting sick or spreading illness around the office,” said Gerba.

Brad Reynolds, North American Platform Leader for The Kimberly-Clark Professional Healthy Workplace Project, added:

“These findings indicate that illness-causing germs are everywhere and have the potential to travel with you into your office space.”

He explained that the main aim of the project was to reduce the spread of transmitted illnesses at work: to help employees learn about and reduce their chances of spreading and getting ill from workplace-transmitted flu and cold germs.

The project comprises educational materials, surface hygiene products for handing out to employees. The central message is “washing, wiping and sanitizing”.

For more information on the The Healthy Workplace Project click here.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD