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2008 June 2 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: Bacteria Lurking In Your Keyboard Could Lead to Illness

If you pay too much attention to all the TV commercials for antibacterial soaps, wipes, lotions, and sprays, it can be difficult not to feel paranoid about all the germs out there that can get you. Now there’s a new threat — or at least a newly publicized threat — to fret about.

Your computer’s keyboard may be harboring the kinds of bugs that can cause a nasty case of food poisoning.

This is according to new research by the London-based consumer group Which? (www.which.co.uk). In swabbing 33 keyboards in its office, it found that four were home to enough bacteria to be potential health hazards. One harbored five times more germs than one of the office’s toilet seats and 150 times more than the level the group considers safe, a keyboard that was so badly contaminated that it had to be trashed.

Most of the group’s keyboards, and by implication most keyboards in use today, are not harboring harmful levels of E.coli, staphylococcus aureus and other nasty stuff. But is yours?

There’s no economical way to test all the keyboards out there, but there are common sense ways to prevent bacterial contamination or eliminate it if it exists.

“The main cause of a bug-infested keyboard is eating lunch at your desk,” according to a report released by the group. Crumbs and spills can wind up on and between the keys. “The food deposits encourage the growth of millions of bacteria, which can lead to stomach bugs.”

Another cause of bacterial contamination of keyboards is thought to be poor personal hygiene, such as neglecting to wash your hands after using the bathroom. Yet another culprit: Dust, which can trap moisture and enable any bacteria that’s already on your keyboard to flourish.

One potential cause of a keyboard that can make you sick, not mentioned by the report, is sharing it with other workers, one of whom may have inadvertently coughed on sneezed onto it or into his hand. If the worker has a cold or flu, the viruses could wind up on your hands.

The way to deal with a dirty keyboard, short of one fit to be destroyed as a result of bad bathroom hygiene, is to simply clean it. If you don’t regularly clean yours, you’re not alone.

In conjunction with testing its own keyboards, Which? conducted an online survey of 4,000 computer users and found that 46 percent of respondents said they clean their keyboard less than once a month, 22 percent once a month and 29 percent more than once a month.

Cleaning a mildly dirty keyboard is easy.

To get rid of crumbs and dust that may have found their way between the keys, first unplug the keyboard, turn it upside down over an office trash can, and gently shake. Afterward, to remove any remaining debris, you can optionally spray between the keys with a can of compressed air, vacuum between the keys using a handheld vacuum cleaner, or wipe between the keys with a computer brush or small paintbrush.

To rid the surface of keys of common grease and grime, with the keyboard unplugged, gently wipe it off with a cloth slightly dampened with water followed by a wipe with a dry cloth. To rid the keys of bacteria and viruses, gently rub the keyboard with an alcohol wipe. How often you clean depends on how clean you are.

To help prevent the fading of the letters and other markings on the keys, don’t rub too hard. For the same reason, avoid household cleaning liquids. Alcohol-free wipes are gentler on your keyboard but not as effective in ridding it of germs.

Aside from ergonomic or specialty keyboards, most computer keyboards are relatively inexpensive, and replacing one if you spill a coffee or soda on it, causing the keys to stick, is relatively painless. Some people have reported that placing a keyboard in a dishwasher sometimes works in such cases, provided you allow plenty of time for it to dry afterward, while others have reported that keyboards stop working after being cleaned in this way.

If you use a computer in a dirty or dusty environment, one option to help keep your keyboard clean is to use a soft, flexible keyboard “skin,” available from computer supply outlets and more easily cleaned than keyboards.

Finally, don’t forget to keep your mouse clean as well. With both ball-type and optical mice, cleaning aids include a moistened cloth, a moistened cotton swab, an alcohol wipe, and compressed air.

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