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Are Germs and Viruses Lurking on your Tech?

While clicking a TV remote, button-bashing a Playstation controller or scrolling through your smartphone, have you ever stopped and thought about the contaminants these objects get exposed to every day? The classic sticky-fingered, post-dessert channel-change; the ‘did you look under the cat?’ full room search; and the ‘between the teeth grip while picking up the cat’ manoeuvre. Although small, these unconscious daily activities build up to a not insignificant risk of infection.

Current times have demonstrated the need for increased awareness of our microscopic foes, but just a small amount of the right knowledge can be extremely helpful. We conducted an experiment, to show you how microscopic critters can use your small devices as vehicles for transmission… and how to ensure viruses such as coronavirus can be kept at bay.

The experiment

The most common tech devices about the home were tested in our appliance of science: 

  • A mobile phone
  • A TV remote
  • A light switch 
  • A gaming controller
  • An iPad

Each presenting particular usage patterns, each with its own characteristic nooks and crannies amidst which unseen things might lurk. 

Next, we set out to detect and trace any contaminants spreading from person to person via the electronic devices.

Spreading real germs and viruses would result in the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve. So we used UV powder, which fluoresces brightly under the illumination of an ultra-violet torch, allowing what was unseen to be revealed.

UV powder on hands

Our test examined how much of the UV ‘germ powder' is transferred from the hand of our experimenter onto the small electronic device. Revealing which devices are most likely to be contaminated, and in which areas unwanted germs and viruses are most likely to stick, ready to be picked up by the next user; illness perhaps being only a switch of the light away.

Here’s how we went about this: 

Firstly, our germ-analogue was applied to the skin; under normal lighting conditions, the powder is invisible.
Then each of the handheld electronic devices was individually exposed to the ‘germ powder’ by handling in a normal way.

After each item was handled, the room lighting was switched off so that the contamination could be revealed, under the rays of the ultra-violet light. Each device has its own personality and so collected the powder in different areas and openings, according to its design

The results of the experiment

The mobile phone
The mobile phone had marks across the screen in particular, as well as providing crevices to catch contaminants between the buttons. Smartphones are taken everywhere, including the bathroom. Studies have found that smartphones can be covered in up to 10 times more bacteria than a toilet seat. 

The TV remote
Like the mobile phone, the TV remote collected the most powder on the areas of most use, on top of the buttons, the crevices at the base of the buttons creating a catchment area for particles. Studies have found that TV remotes can be much dirtier than the loo seat.

The light switch
As the light switch is the device most likely to be used by all members of a household, the ‘germ powder’ here most likely comes from a combination of different people. Tests have shown that a light switch can have over 200 bacteria per square inch.

The gaming controller
Researchers found that gaming controllers had an average of 7,863 units of bacteria per 100 square centimetres, compared to 1,600 on the average toilet seat. This result was clearly mirrored by our experiment.

The iPad
The iPad is essentially a larger version of the mobile phone, only combined with the multi-person use of the light switch. Researchers have found that when swabbed, a tablet held 600 units of staphylococcus compared to a toilet seat, which had under 20 units.

UV powder on devices

Our conclusion

The small handheld appliances of the home are particularly vulnerable to contamination. Nooks, crannies and large surface areas frequently touched by dirty digits can become havens for unwanted microscopic invaders.

Do not fear, however! We have compiled the knowledge you need to keep yourself and your household healthy and happy…

Keeping your appliances microbe-free

On the surface, it may seem like a fuss to clean both your hands and your devices, but it’s below the surface of things that these things lurk. Therefore it is important to keep in mind the hidden nature of these things. Bacteria are invisible to the naked eye; viruses are several scales smaller again. Surfaces and belongings can be contaminated with serious viruses, particularly in times of risk (as with COVID-19), through such things as misdirected coughs, perhaps transferring to the hands and then to items. 

Washing your hands regularly, good respiratory hygiene (using and disposing of tissues), and cleaning surfaces can all help reduce any risk - although the survival rate of most contaminants on surfaces is quite low. 

Cleaning methods

Sanitisers are a useful method of cleaning on the go, killing many microorganisms. However, thoroughly washing your hands will simply rinse the various contaminants away. This can be achieved by washing for 20 seconds, not forgetting to clean between your fingers and the back of your palms.

When it comes to electronics, sheathing your devices in a wipeable covering can make the process much simpler, as you’ve eliminated many of the various nooks and crannies that attract contaminants.

Otherwise, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning… liquids and electronics don’t mix! You can get cleaning wipes designed for gadgets, most of which contain alcohol, which evaporates quickly to reduce the risk. Alternatively, you can purchase a bottle of isopropyl alcohol (look for at least 70% alcohol content) and use that as a cleaning fluid, though do check the manufacturer's instructions first. If using your own cleaning fluid, always apply it to a cloth and never spray or pour directly on the device.

For other areas and surfaces, the UK Government recommends you clean with one wipe in one direction, using a household detergent and followed by a disinfectant. Alternatively, the following is a recipe for a homemade corona-killer:

  • Add 4 teaspoons of household bleach to 2 pints of water
  • Shake the mix up in a spray bottle
  • Spray onto surfaces, leave for 10 minutes to disinfect
  • Wipe away with a wet cloth

To conclude, it’s the small things that matter in the struggle against the microscopic creatures that cause big problems. Being aware of how germs and viruses might infect their way onto your personal belongings is a great way of staying one step ahead of them.

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