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Cleanliness lesson from ATMs, toilets, germs and Charlie Sheen

Daniel Ray

That does it. I’m using my elbows from now on to punch in my PIN number at an ATM.

That’s because a new study has reminded me just how germ-laden ATM keypads are. They contain as much illness-causing bacteria as public toilets, researchers found. Armed with swabs, the British researchers dabbed at the keypads of heavily used ATM machines in a variety of British downtowns.  Then they went to nearby public restrooms and swiped their swabs across the toilet seats, muttering “All those years at the university — for this?”


Then they let the swabs stew overnight. They found a similar number of pseudomonads and bacillus on each batch of swabs — the kinds of germs that can make you sick enough to run for a public toilet in the first place.

“We were surprised by our results because the ATM machines were shown to be heavily contaminated with bacteria, to the same level as nearby public lavatories,” said Dr. Richard Hastings, a microbiologist who headed up the experiment. “In addition, the bacteria we detected on ATMs were similar to those from the toilet, which are well known as causes of common human illnesses.”

British journalists pounced on the story, as British journalists are wont to do. “Germ tests prove cash machines are ‘as dirty as public toilets’” shouted The Daily Mail. “Cash machines as dirty as public loos”  cried The Sun.

American headline writers, usually staid in comparison to our UK counterparts, really stepped up their game in their presentations of the story.  “Is your ATM a bacterial time bomb?” hysteried the New York Times’ Freakonomics column.  And a special hat tip to LA Weekly, which managed to find a  Hollywood angle to the story: “ATM keypads are as dirty as toilet seats (and Charlie Sheen’s sheets),” the paper leered.

Ordinarily, I’d arch my eyebrow over such a study, because of its source: Dr. Hastings works for a company that produces an antibacterial coating product, so they have a vested interest in finding filth their product can form a barrier against.

In this case, though, I buy it. Their study confirms earlier, similar research we had compiled into our 2008 story, “Is your credit card making you sick?” Done during the height of the H1N1 swine flu scare, it compared the germ counts on common items touched by many hands — cash, ATM keypads, computer keyboards.  Filthy all, with computer keyboards the worst.

So I’m changing my ways. I’ll be the guy standing behind you at the ATM with the hand sanitizer. And no more eating at my desk. I just turned my keyboard over, and with what fell out, I think I could knit a sandwich. Ew.

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  • This is really informative. I have known long before that keyboards are really very dirty but this disgusting reality about ATM machines and credit cards is something new to me.