Is ignorance bliss? Or is forewarned forearmed?
If you are aware of a situation that is unquestionably gross and could threaten your health, but has so far caused no obvious problems, should you be allowed to continue ignoring it, despite knowing the risk?
Yes, of course. There are so many unacknowledged risks to modern life that simply acknowledging each individually would halt all forward progress, stall the economy, halt the creation of jobs and…well, never mind.
The point is that nearly everyone willing to spend time at work reading up on things that are interesting rather than those relevant to their jobs already know that the filthiest, most disease-ridden thing they touch all day is not a subway platform, a toilet a rest-room-door or an investment banker.
The germiest thing most office workers touch all day is the thing they're touching all day – their computer keyboard.
Today a startup called Vioguard announced it got FDA approval for a device the company said can kill up to 99.9 percent of pathogens using ultraviolet light.
'99.99%' effectiveness is more like 67% even when Vioguard funds the studies
The truth is probably less bright.
A clinical study published in the American Journal of Infection Control (June, 2011) found the Vioguard product only 67 percent effective at eliminating pathogens and did not eliminate the need to clean the keyboard by hand.
Vioguard – launched by a couple of former Microsoft hardware designers – has been selling the self-(mostly)sanitizing keyboard to consumers for around $900.
Now, with the FDA approval, it is pitching the keyboard for use in hospitals, which are to the infectious-diseases world what Kenya is to world-class marathoning.
Hospitals tend are filled with people sick, among other things, with bacteria, viruses, prions and other invisible pathogens that are far more successful at making humans sick than those that infect people who don't end up in the hospital.
That alone would guarantee hospitals are a great source for the most virulent bugs.
Germs compete, evolve and survive in exactly the same way larger organism do, however.
The fittest – those that make humans the sickest or that are tough enough to survive antibiotics, antiseptics and insurance-verification procedures survive long enough to produce new generations of even tougher bugs.
How disgusting is your keyboard? Not as bad as your skin.
According to lab studies funded by Irish office-supply company Viking, two thirds of the desks in an average office are infected with varieties of staphylococcus bacteria, a common bug that can cause anything from food poisoning to skin rashes to toxic shock.
An October study published in the African Journal of Microbiology Research showed 96 percent of common objects such as keyboards, computer mice and elevator buttons are commonly infected with a variety of pathogens, including staph and bacillus.
That all sounds horrible, of course. And it may be; about 82 percent of people coming down with communicable diseases get them from common objects like keyboards and mice.
On the other hand, staph, bacillus and many of the other species of pathogen found in high concentrations on your office equipment live so closely with humans we'd probably miss them when they're gone.
Between 20 and 30 species of staph live in the nose or on the skin of most people all the time, rarely causing infections themselves. Particularly virulent species like S. Aureus can cause skin infections, blood toxicity, and flesh-eating infections.
MRSA – an antibiotic-resistant strain of particularly nasty staph – is common in the U.S. and most common in hospitals.
(According to another British study, not only are keyboards 5 times dirtier than toilets, 16 percent of cell phones have traces of human feces and intestinal bacteria on them. So watch whose phone you borrow.)
Never, ever accept a used keyboard from a hospital
So if you're looking for a tough, persistent pathogens that won't collapse at the first wash of antibiotic or flash of UV light, look in a hospital.
Keyboards in hospitals are as disgusting as those anywhere else, with the added benefit of having at least a few strains of really incorrigible or delinquent microbes as well as the usual kind that hangs around to eat the crumbs of lunch you leave behind for them.
As hospitals become more digitized, keyboards are showing up closer and closer to the actual patient and surgical rooms – often inside each so clinicians can go direct from the patient to the keyboard to update diagnostic records, then go wash their hands so they can infect the next patient's keyboard with only that patient's individual bacteria.
How does it work? And is it worth $900?
Vioguard's self-sanitizing keyboard ships with a box into which the keyboard can withdraw to be bathed in the germicidal ultraviolet-C light of two 24-watt fluorescent lamps. (Ultraviolet does to germs what hard vacuum does to humans; I won't go into details, but go watch any SF thriller that includes a shot of someone in a space suit in the trailer and you'll see what I mean.)
The box, with has a mechanized drawer into which the keyboard retracts automatically, keeps the keyboard hidden until a user waves a hand to activate an infrared motion detector, which sends the keyboard out of its germ-free environment to experience the filth of your fingers (and lunch).
There are plenty of antiseptic sprays, wipes and other keyboard-antibiotics, not to mention waterproof keyboards that don't mind being deloused a couple of times per day.
Alternatives to clean your keys or tan your fingers There are also other UV products: from VirWall Systems, a UV-lit cover that is put over phones or keyboards for a little bacterial mass destruction, then can be moved on to other targets.
Germ Genie looms over a keyboard like an evil desk light, bathing it in UV to kill germs left by your fingers as you type. It's not clear if it tans your hands while it works, but that's possible, too.
Most are awkward, ugly, smelly, carcinogenic and less effective than they should be because they can't reach bacteria hidden down in the nooks and crannies of a keyboard.
Vioguard's approach is elegant, science-fictioney, doubles as a monitor stand, and should, logically, do what it says it does. (Bacteria and viruses tend not to read press releases or product specs, however. They're too busy hiding in the crevices and shades spots even of keyboards designed to give them no refuge.)
Vioguard's FDA approval is new, but it has been selling the self-sanitizing keyboard directly for consumers, for around $900 – a price that would make even the most germophobic computer user sick.