I'm no germaphobe, but I once saw a man on my train sneeze quietly into his copy of a free London newspaper before neatly folding it back up and getting off. At the next stop another man got on the train, opened up the discarded paper and began reading it, blissfully unaware of its sticky contents. After that I vowed never to read papers left on trains again – ditto in hairdressers' and doctors' surgeries.
Now, amid growing concern over the coronavirus outbreak, even the most relaxed among us are becoming more germ-conscious; washing our hands more, bulk buying hand sanitiser (sales rose by 255 per cent last month), keeping our distance from fellow commuters and colleagues, and opting to work from home.
This week the public was also urged to clean their smartphones twice a day with alcohol wipes to help prevent the spread of the virus – of which there are now 51 cases in the UK – as Covid-19 has the ability to lurk on the flat, glass surface of a phone for almost a week. "You could be washing your hands, but if you start touching your smartphone screen and then touch your face that is a potential route of infection," said William Keevil, a professor of environmental healthcare at the University of Southampton. He says the average human touches their face 15 to 30 times per hour without even realising – one of the key ways the disease spreads.
Phones – or "portable petri dishes", as one scientist referred to them – aside, what other daily objects do you need to watch out for?
Public touch screens
"Another big issue that people haven't really cottoned onto yet are touch screens," says Prof Keevil. "Think about where you touch them: in the self-service section of the supermarket, at the GP surgery when you check in on arrival, at the airport to print off your tickets, or when you're getting money from a cash machine. An awful lot of people have touched those screens before you. Who cleans them and how often, if at all? I see touch screens as a higher risk than mobile phones, because generally only you touch your phone."
Prof Keevil recommends washing your hands after using touch screens, using hand sanitiser wipes or gel, or – and he acknowledges this seems extreme – wearing gloves. "If you wear disposable ones, dispose of them straight after, or wear your own gloves and wash them every day. Either way, always wash your hands immediately after taking off gloves."
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This week, employers banned hot-desking, the practice of allocating desks on an as-needed rota. It follows a US study that found the office phone is the most contaminated item in the office. Another study has found over 1,600 bacteria per square inch on a typical computer mouse and similar numbers were found on keyboards and desks.
Prof Keevil says office door handles are another chief spreader of viruses, along with photocopier and water cooler buttons, stairs and escalator handrails, kettles and toilet door handles. "We know that a range of bacterial and viral pathogens (a bacterium, virus or other microorganism that can cause disease) can exist for many days on common touch surfaces in offices," he says.
A study by hygiene surface provider Rentokil Initial found that 25 per cent of office workers do not wash their hands after using the toilet. "Men tend to be more guilty of this than women," says Prof Keevil.
If all that makes you want to work from home for the rest of the outbreak, see our hand guide on how to do so without letting your productivity wane.
Research published in BMC Infectious Diseases found those using public transport during flu outbreaks were up to six times more likely to pick up an infection. "Planes, trains and buses are the perfect environment for the coronavirus to spread," says Prof Keevil. "On your commute, you'll come into contact with several common touch surfaces: train door buttons, fabric train and tube seats, tube poles and hand held rails, and pedestrian crossing buttons are all commonly touched, high risk surfaces."
One study published in the Environmental Health journal found the commuters most at risk had the longest journeys, used busy interchange stations and held tube poles. Prof Keevil says our eat-on-the-go culture is also making things worse: "Plastic cutlery that you help yourself to in take-out cafes can harbour germs, as can pull down tables on the backs of train sets. And we snack more than ever, typing away on a commonly touched keyboard and then snacking on crisps or fruit without washing hands first."
A typical lift button harbours almost 40 times as many germs as a public toilet seat, according to scientists from the University of Arizona. Their researchers tested lift buttons in hotels, work places, restaurants and airports and found 313 'colony forming units' of bacteria on every square centimetre of the buttons (a typical toilet seat has only eight units). "In a busy building, a lift button can be touched by dozens of people who will have come into contact with all kinds of bacteria every hour," says study author Dr Nicholas Moon. "Even if the buttons are cleaned regularly, the potential for the build up of bacteria is high."
The solution? Use your knuckle instead of your fingertip (you're less likely to touch your face with your knuckles.)
Despite not being recommended by Public Health England (PHE), the NHS or the World Health Organisation (WHO) because there is no solid evidence they work and even concern they can make things worse, sales have skyrocketed since the outbreak began. "They make people touch their face more which increases the chance of infection," says Prof Keevil. "Most people buy poor quality ones that quickly become damp inside, and they leave them on for too long, making them a good breeding ground for viruses. "The best way to avoid coronavirus spread is to avoid common touch surfaces and keep your hands clean. Masks don't help with that."