Don't touch that desk

I once worked with a persnickety bachelor who began each shift by hosing down his entire desk with Lysol and briskly scrubbing away all the unseen viruses and germs there.

We co-workers secretly made fun of him, cracking jokes about Felix Unger and the biological warfare of intentionally sneezing on his phone, but a recent news item shows he was right -- your desk is a veritable laboratory of sneaky bacteria.

A study by researchers at the University of Arizona found that the standard office desk has 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat.

The study said the worst places for bacteria were telephones, desktops and keyboards, which are the only parts of the standard office desk that get much use. Apparently, the only relatively safe place is the inside of your desk drawers, and it's hard to get any work done in there because the lighting is inadequate.

This study raises a number of questions:

1) Where did I put the Lysol?

2) Would it be safer to work in the bathroom?

3) Does the Occupational Safety and Health Administration know about this?

4) Which toilet seat was used as the benchmark for the study? And did that household include young boys who have difficulty with the concept of "aiming?"

5) What kind of scientist spends his time measuring bacteria on desks and toilets? And was the study federally funded?

6) Is there some way to blame the bacteria on Saddam Hussein?

I have no answers to these questions because I learned of the study in in a magazine called "Fast Company," and the one-paragraph article was short on details. "Fast Company," for those of you who've never seen it, is a hip business magazine for people who are too busy to read. It's aimed at those striving executives who have cell phones permanently glued to their ears and who take their laptops to church. Articles in the magazines tend to rely heavily on quotes from millionaire CEOs. The design is so splashy it's difficult to tell the articles from the advertisements.

Why, you may ask yourself, was a housebound writer type like me, someone whose idea of a hectic business day includes liberal doses of computer Solitaire, reading "Fast Company?" Well, it was in the bathroom at our house.

Magazines tend to congregate in bathrooms, and at our house the bathrooms are regular periodical libraries, where there's always something to read, no matter how brief the stay. In the bathroom -- where, let's face it, I'm a captive audience -- I'll read most anything, including the "Old Farmer's Almanac" and the kids' "Mad" magazines. No doubt all these magazines are infested with bacteria.

Anyway, occasionally I see something in these accumulated magazines that applies to our workaday world, and this bacteria study sure made me sit up (as it were) and take notice. A desk has 400 times more bacteria than a toilet seat? It's a wonder we don't all keel over dead every time we check our e-mail.

The results of the study should come as no surprise, I suppose. Even the worst housekeepers must clean the toilet every week or two, or the place starts to smell like the restroom at the bus station. Desks, on the other hand, can be cleaned less frequently, such as, oh, never.

Most desks are buried under files and calendars and power cords and reference works and Post-It notes and "Dilbert" cartoons. This clutter makes an ideal habitat for bacteria, who take to it like snakes to a woodpile. To clean your desk properly, you'd have to move all that stuff and scrub everything down and then put all the stuff back. And who has time for that?

Even if you're a neat freak who keeps all clutter hidden away, the type who can actually see your desktop, I'll bet you don't regularly police the area for bacteria. And, if you did, how could you tell when you'd successfully rid your desk of this invisible menace? You'd need a researcher in a hazmat suit to stop by and measure.

While he's there, have him check the toilet seats. And all the magazines.

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