May 22, 2018
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Would you like a side of bacteria with that lunch?

By Georgia Clark-Albert, Special to the BDN

Where did you eat lunch yesterday, and what about the day before that, and most of last week?

If your answer is, “at my desk,” you may be consuming more than just food. A study sponsored by the American Dietetic Association and ConAgra Foods showed that about 83 percent of American workers routinely eat at their desks but only 36 percent admit they clean their desktop, keyboard and mouse weekly. Some clean once in a while, and some admit that they never clean their desktop. So it wasn’t surprising when a study by the University of Arizona found the typical worker’s desk has hundreds of times more bacteria per square inch than an office toilet seat, which has about 49 germs per square inch while the desktops had almost 21,000 germs per square inch. That office phone you are chatting on while munching on an afternoon snack, on average, has about 25,000 germs per square inch.

Phones, keyboards, mice, desktops all are germ transfer points because people touch them so often. During cold and flu season many workers want to avoid their co-workers who may be sneezing, coughing, hacking and whatever else so they hide at their desks. But this may very well be the place that is making them sick. Bacteria that may be lurking their can cause strep throat, pneumonia and other conditions. These can be treated with antibiotics, but the small viruses that cause colds and flu cannot be treated with antibiotics.

The award for the occupation that tops the listed of having the most bacteria per square inch of workspace is awarded to schoolteachers because of their constant contact with children. Accountants came in second, followed by bankers, radio disc jockeys and doctors. Aside from your career choice your gender can play a factor in the cleanliness of your office. You might be surprised, but the bacteria levels in women’s offices were nearly three times higher than in men’s offices, even though the women’s offices looked cleaner. This was explained by women having more “stuff” in their offices –- from family photos to makeup bags and purses on desks. Men win the prize for having the germiest item of all. Men’s wallets were the single germiest item found in any office –- four times worse than women’s purses. Offices with highest bacterial counts experience the highest number of viruses and colds.

About 80 percent of infections are transmitted through the environment. By wiping down work areas with disinfectant wipes every day you can significantly reduce the bacterial content of your work environment. Many people don’t bother to clean their desktop until they start sticking to it. The average desktop has 100 times more bacteria than a kitchen table. Treat your desktop like you would your kitchen table at home. Clean all surfaces before you prepare or eat food on them.

When you bring your lunch to work do you put it in the office refrigerator, you know the one that was last cleaned? Well, nobody really remembers when it was last cleaned. Only 67 percent of people store their lunch in an office refrigerator and 20 percent admit that the refrigerator in their workplace never gets cleaned. Perishable foods should be refrigerated within two hours from when it was removed from a home or store refrigerator. On average, 49 percent of people surveyed admit to letting perishable food sit out for three or more hours, meaning food has the opportunity to begin to spoil even before you take the first bite.

If you want to continue eating at your desk, do it safely by following these tips:

• Use soap and hot water for 18-20 seconds to wash your hands before eating any food at your desk.

• If you can’t get to a restroom have moist towelettes or hand sanitizer available in your workspace to clean your hands.

• Regularly clean your desktop, phone, keyboard and mouse. A water-bleach solution of 9 parts water and 1 part bleach works well as a disinfectant.

• If your lunch contains any perishable food items store it in the refrigerator. Food should be stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.

• Have someone assigned to take the temperature of the refrigerator daily and to clean and disinfect it at least once a month.

• Bring a cloth placemat from home and use this in your workspace to put your lunch on.

• Wash coffee mugs, water glasses and any other dishes after every use. Use hot water and antibacterial soap. Dry with a paper towel, not a communal office fabric dish towel.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at or email her at


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