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Want to Protect Yourself from Germs? Avoid the ATM

February 16, 2017

Where do most germs come from?

Well, germs are everywhere, but according to one recent study ATMs are a hotbed of bacteria.

Researchers collected samples from 66 ATMs in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Four of the machines were outdoors.

They found that most of the bacteria came from human skin, which had picked up these germs from common household surfaces and items such as televisions, bathrooms, pillows and kitchens.

If you often go to your bank’s ATM, then you’re in luck. The study’s authors found that ATMs in laundromats and stores often carried the most germs, and that this bacteria typically came from decayed plants or spoiled milk products. Bacteria from spoiled baked goods, fish, chicken and mollusks (clams, oysters, mussels, etc.) also were found on ATM keypads, likely indicating that most people don’t wash their hands well enough after eating or preparing food. Researchers found no difference between indoor and outdoor ATMs, so you may be just as likely to come in contact with bacteria regardless of which machine you use.

The study’s findings aren’t that surprising. Densely populated cities often are home to lots of bacteria, just by the sheer nature of the amount of people who live there and the many surfaces with which they come in contact. The study’s authors said previous research mostly has focused on public transportation systems, city soils, plumbing and ventilation systems in buildings as the most common sources of bacteria, but ATMs represent a “specific and unexplored” source of bacteria that may help scientists understand human behavior and the environmental sources of germs.

Other research has shown that germs can live anywhere — and for longer periods than you think. One 2016 study conducted by researchers in England indicated the flu virus could live on surfaces, such as coupons, cotton and microfibre, for up to two weeks. So yes, all surfaces have bacteria and some even may make you sick.

The best defense to protect yourself from all infections is good hand washing. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has guidelines for handwashing on its site. It basically says you should wash your hands before and after you eat, use the bathroom, take the garbage out, come in contact with someone who’s sick and after you sneeze, cough or blow your nose, among other everyday occurrences. You also need to scrub your hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds to get a good clean. In a pinch, hand sanitizer also can provide much-needed protection from germs.

Proper hand washing is especially critical in a hospital environment. At all Orlando Health facilities, we’ve launched hand hygiene campaigns to share infection prevention best practices with our staff. In 2015, we even launched an internal competition between six hospitals in our health system focused on the importance of proper handwashing (some Orlando Health medical staff had fun with the public service campaign — check out this entertaining video from South Lake Hospital featuring their version of the hit song "Watch Me").

Bottom line: hand washing is the best way to protect yourself from germs that can cause illness. As the study shows, bacteria can be found on many everyday surfaces — and may live on these surfaces for several weeks. If you haven’t gotten into the practice of washing your hands thoroughly, now is a good time to start.

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