HEALTH

Germs on touch screens: ATMs, airport kiosks, others put to the test

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Every day, we do it without thinking. From getting cash at the ATM, to buying milk at the grocery story and even checking in to your flight at the airport, touch screens are everywhere and we're all using them.

You might want to wash your hands right after the next time you use an ATM. (Photo: Associated Press)

Advances in technology that make our lives that much easier, like touch screens, aren't as scary, though, as the germs left behind on them as hundreds of people use them on a daily basis.

"They are dirty," Suzanne Blevins of Reston-based Aerobiology Laboratories simply says.

MORE: Check out the results of the 7 On  Your Side study in this photo gallery.

To test these, ABC7 went out with Blevins to stores and places where touch screens are prevalent and heavily used. 7 On Your Side picked these locations - including a CVS touch screen checkout device, an Amtrak check-in terminal at Union Station, several ATMs at a Bank of America and others - at random and tested them for the level of bacteria and germs you're putting your hands onto.

The findings at some places were stunning.

 

"You probably wouldn't have those numbers at home on your kitchen counter," Blevins said. "It was surprising; I didn't think the environment would be such that they'd even care to live there."

MORE: Read the full lab report from Aerobiology Laboratories here. (.pdf)

In total, 11 surfaces were tested. The dirtiest of the bunch was found at Union Station in Washington, where an Amtrak check-in kiosk registered a reading of 3,700 colony forming units per swab. A colony forming unit, or CFU, is a measure of bacteria that only registers organisms that are alive.

That means that in one swab of the kiosk, it registered 3,700 particles of germs or bacteria from someone else that could do you harm.

"I think i might start using my knuckles when use the touch screens," touch screen user Brandon Funkhouser says.

Even at a grocery store?

The one location that surprised Blevins was a touch screen check-out device at a Giant grocery store. The one tested in the ABC7 study collected 2,400 CFUs per swab.

"It was surprising to see those high numbers," she said.

Beyond the sheer number of bacteria attached to these devices, several of the types of germs that turned up in testing were cited by Aerobiology and Blevins as 'red flag bacteria.' These specific types could lead to possible infections if they were to enter the body through a cut or abrasion.

"We picked up quite a variety," Blevins said. "It kind of implies anything can live there in terms of the bacteria world."

The particularly nasty ones

Specifically, Blevins singled out two types of bacteria - Burkholderia cepacia and Citrobacter freundii - as ones that could cause some nasty infections or illnesses.

These types of red flag bacterium were found on the ATMs, a RedBox movie rental station and a ticket kiosk at the Regal movie theater in Gallery Place.

"They should probably put some hand sanitizer or something right next to it so you can clean your hands," touch screen user Stephany East says.

The scientists agree with that sentiment.

"It might be a good idea to wash your hands," Blevins said. "Just to not carry these to the next place, to the next person."

Check out the full lab report on all the surfaces tested:

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