Perhaps the scariest thing about this article – and doing the research for it – is that it was hard to determine which five surfaces qualified as the germiest. That's because we're constantly surrounded by dozens (and I am being conservative on this estimate) of extremely germy surfaces and items that could vie for this top five list.
In fact, reports of the levels of germs on surfaces in public places varies considerably, and the spectrum of figures depends at least in part on where the study was done. Testing has focused on the dirtiest surfaces in workplaces, schools, homes, hospitals, and everyday items in general. Frankly, the results of all the studies significantly raised my awareness of just how germy our world can be.
But forewarned is forearmed, and we hope the following information will set your radar in motion and trigger you and your family to take steps to protect against the hordes of germs literally at your fingertips by thoroughly washing your hands with soap and water after touching these surfaces.
Here are the top five germiest surfaces (and several runner-ups). Even if you don't agree with the order of the list (and it is open for interpretation), what's a few million bacteria one way or the other?
1. Grocery cart handles.
According to University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, PhD, about 70 to 80 percent of grocery carts tested across the country were contaminated with E. coli, which are bacteria associated with serious diarrhea and stomach cramps. Yet there can be much on those cart handles, including other disease-causing bacteria and viruses from children's dirty hands and diapers, as well as microorganisms from leaky meat, poultry, and fish packaging. Gerba is well known for his numerous studies of contamination with germs in public places.
2. Gas pump handles.
You may want to don gloves before gassing up. According to results of a test conducted by Kimberly-Clark Professional by trained hygienists in six major U.S. cities, 71 percent of gas pump handles tested revealed high levels of contamination. This determination was based on a reading of 300 or higher of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a substance found in all animal, vegetable, yeast, mold, and bacteria cells. ATP levels are the standard by which hygienists measure contamination, and readings greater than 300 are deemed to carry a high risk of infection.
3. Mailbox handles.
This choice also comes from the Kimberly-Clark study, which stated that 68 percent of handles on mailboxes exceeded the 300 limit.
4. Escalator rails.
When you think about it, escalators are everywhere: malls, airports, train stations, department stores; basically, areas where literally millions of people can unknowingly share their germs. The Kimberly-Clark study found 43 percent of escalator rails were highly contaminated.
5. ATM machine buttons.
You've likely heard the term "dirty money," but this gives a whole new meaning to the phrase. Several studies have identified the ATM machine buttons as harbors for germs, including one done in the United Kingdom.
Microbiologist Dr. Richard Hastings reported on the findings of a comparison of bacteria levels on ATM machines and public toilets, pointing out that "the ATM machines were shown to be heavily contaminated with bacteria, to the same level as nearby public toilets." The Kimberly-Clark study placed a figure of 41 percent on the number of contaminated ATM buttons in its study.
And now for the runner-ups.
Runner-up no. 1 is a combination of surfaces in hotels rooms. According to a study conducted by Jay Neal, PhD, assistant professor at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, University of Houston, the germiest surfaces in hotel accommodations are the toilet, bathroom floor, and bathroom sink. These results, which were presented at the June 2012 General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology, also included the main light switch.
For parents of young children, runner-up no. 2 may be of interest. A study published in the Journal of School Nursing reported on the presence of bacteria and viruses on common classroom contact surfaces. At the top of the list of surfaces contaminated with bacteria were water fountain toggles, pencil sharpeners, and keyboards, while most viruses were found on desktops, faucet handles, and paper towel dispensers.
Don't let the germiest surfaces in your world get the best of you. Be aware, wash your hands with soap and water often (especially after touching these and other contaminated surfaces), try to keep your hands away from your eyes and face, and keep a supply of hand sanitizer handy: those that contain 60% alcohol are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but you may want to opt for alcohol-free versions that provide plant-based protection from ingredients such as lavender or thyme essential oils.