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Dishing the dirt on office germs

By Simon Hooper for CNN

Desktop snacking: More on the menu than you'd imagine.
Desktop snacking: More on the menu than you'd imagine.

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- It's not just computer viruses that you should worry about at work.

According to a University of Arizona study, a typical desk is capable of supporting up to 10 million bacteria -- 400 times more germs than the average toilet seat.

And workers who believe their desks are clean enough to eat their lunch off are in for a nasty shock.

Longer office hours and the modern appetite for workplace snacking have created an environment perfect for bacterial contamination.

"For bacteria, a desk is really the lap of luxury," said Dr. Charles Gerba, the University of Arizona microbiologist who conducted the research in 2002.

"They can feast all day from breakfast to lunch and even dinner."

Gerba's study found that bacteria levels increased drastically during the day, peaking after lunch.

Telephones were worst affected, with 25,127 germs found in an average square inch on the receiver. Desktops were also heavily contaminated, with 20,961 germs found.

Workers who prefer e-mail to the phone aren't safe either. Keyboards were found to support 3,295 germs per square inch, with another 1,676 settling on the mouse.

By contrast, the average square inch of toilet seat supports just 49 germs.

Mini eco-systems

While many workers like to keep their desk tidy, few actually worry about cleaning it.

Even though crumbs and coffee spills are capable of supporting mini eco-systems, the closest most office space ever gets to a proper clean-up is an occasional cursory brush with a duster.

"Without cleaning, a small area on your desk or phone can sustain millions of bacteria that could potentially cause illness," said Gerba.

The good news is that a little bit of hygiene management goes a long way to tackling the problem.

Among office workers who were instructed to clean their desks daily with disinfecting wipes, bacterial levels were reduced by 99 percent.

"One good way to kill bacteria and help stop the spread of germs is to regularly clean your personal workspace," said Gerba.

"Using disinfecting wipes can drastically reduce your chances of illness."

And if you have to eat your lunch off anything in the office, try the photocopier. With just 69 germs per square inch, it's almost as clean as the bathroom.

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