Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gross, but it won't kill you

Chance of getting sick from dirty screen 'close to non-existent'

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TORONTO -- There's good news and bad news about what lies on the surfaces of your computer, smartphone or tablet.

The bad news: In all likelihood, they're absolutely covered in tiny bugs, which could potentially include bacteria and viruses such as parainfluenza, E. coli, C. difficile and drug-resistant MRSA. If you share the device, the danger of it harbouring some scary germs is even higher.

The good news: There's no real reason for concern, especially if you've developed good hand-washing habits. The odds of getting sick from the bacteria and viruses that linger on computers and gadgets are about as miniscule as the tiny organisms themselves, says Dr. Alison McGeer, an infectious disease specialist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.

When asked about the chances of getting sick from using a computer keyboard in a public library, she said: "Zero. Very close to non-existent."

Still, learning about what lingers on our digital toys and tools can be plenty unnerving. According to a 2008 study co-authored by Charles Gerba at the University of Arizona, viruses and bacteria on computer equipment typically thrive in high numbers, even though people have been conditioned to regularly use sanitizing wipes and sprays.

Computers at home were found to be far germier than those at offices.

"Particularly the keyboard keys you touch the most -- the E, S, T -- are the most heavily contaminated, and of course the return and space bar," Gerba said.

Last year, the London School of Hygiene reported 92 per cent of the phones they tested in an experiment were contaminated with bacteria, and 18 per cent came back positive for fecal bacteria. Gerba has done similar research on digital touchscreens in hospitals and supermarket self-service checkout lanes.

There's nothing to fear about touching those dirty surfaces -- as long as you wash your hands diligently.

"The bacteria or viruses on your fingers don't do any harm at all; it's only if they get into your mouth or around your eyes or through cuts that they pose a risk," McGeer said.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 15, 2012 B4

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