How quickly germs spread in the office may surprise you - Dallas News |

How quickly germs spread in the office may surprise you

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TUCSON, Ariz. -

Most of us know if we sneeze into our hands we should wash them right away -- but what you may not realize is how quickly those germs can spread.

"We did a study to find out how fast a virus could spread through an office environment."

Doctor Charles Gerba knows germs. He's a University of Arizona microbiologist.

"When I was doing my doctoral studies, my advisor said Gerba, I think your future is in the toilet and I took him seriously."

He and his staff study germs, viruses and bacteria.

"Unusually this time on is the height of cold or flu season and diarrhea season or vomiting disease, they call it this time of year."

The university lab contains a level 2 containment room -- bad stuff in there. And over a span of thirty years they've discovered bad stuff just about everywhere else.

"Cell phones are one of the germiest objects you can touch… it's really safer to make a salad on a toilet seat than on a cutting board according to our studies. Women's offices are much germier than men's, we think because women tend to store food in their desk. The kitchen got more fecal material than the average bathroom in a household."

But of greatest concern now, especially this time of year -- germs in the office place.

"Really the hand is quicker than the sneeze in spreading a virus around the office."

Gerba and his associates recently conducted an experiment. With permission from an anonymous company, they purposely placed a small amount of a harmless virus on an office doorknob to see how quickly it would spread among the 80 people who worked there.

"Then we checked the highly touched surfaces in the offices and people's hands for that same virus."

They didn't have to wait long.

"Surprisingly within four hours we found that virus on about half the commonly touched surfaces in the office building and on people's hands."

The main culprit -- the break room coffee pot.

"What's the first thing everyone does in the morning? They go get a cup of coffee so the first thing that tends to get contaminated is the coffee pot handle."

And the virus just spread from there.

"An average office worker can touch up to 40 surfaces in a minute just by typing keyboards, mice, closing doors in an office building, its quite amazing people don't realize how many surfaces they touch."

And from commonly touched surfaces like keyboards and coffee pots, it isn't hard for the virus to move on.

"These viruses are spread very readily by getting the virus on your hand and bringing your fingers to your nose, mouth or eyes… as an adult you are going to do that about 16 times an hour whether you realize it or not."

During their experiment Gerba says the virus would have infected about a third of everyone in the office.

"It was interesting that just one person comes into a large office building with a cold or flu, we calculate he could affect about one third of the people in that office building."

The answer? Dr. Gerba says use sanitizer to clean your desk once in a while.

"Most people don't clean a desktop until they start sticking to it from what we can figure out. If you have a cold or flu you should really stay home unless you really don't like your fellow employees."

Dr. Gerba says that while adults touch their face about 16 times an hour, toddlers and young children touch their faces much more often -- about 80 times an hour. Gerba says that's one reason they're sick all the time.

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