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The 10 Most Germ-Infested Places in Public
© 2018 Health Realizations, Inc. Update

If you've used an elevator, shared a pen or grabbed a snack from a vending machine today, more than likely you've already come into contact with illness-causing germs. In fact, some of the dirtiest places in public are seemingly innocent, yet because they're used often and rarely cleaned, they harbor a host of potential pathogens.

playground public place germs

Bodily fluids were found on 44 percent of playground surfaces tested by University of Arizona researchers.

According to researchers at the University of Arizona, who tested over 800 public surfaces in four U.S. cities, one out of every five surfaces in places like shopping centers, offices, day care centers and airports are contaminated.

Bodily Fluids, Fecal Matter and Protein

Along with testing the samples for the presence of protein (which is a general indicator of hygiene) and fecal matter, the researchers measured levels of three biochemical markers that could contain illness-causing substances. These included:

  • Hemoglobin: Indicates the presence of blood

  • Alpha-amylase: Indicates the presence of mucus, saliva and/or urine

  • Urea: Indicates the presence of urine

Out of all the samples, the places that carried the most germs were children's playgrounds. A full 44 percent of playground surfaces tested positive for bodily fluids.

"Really, I'm never going to go on a swing in a children's playground again," said microbiologist Chuck Gerba, one of the study's researchers.

The Top 10 Germiest Public Places

Playgrounds are not the only public places that call for a good hand-washing after using them. Following are the top 10 germiest places the researchers found (germs are able to survive on these surfaces anywhere from just a few hours to a few weeks).

  1. Playgrounds
  2. Bus rails/armrests
  3. Public bathrooms
  4. Shopping cart handles
  5. Escalator handrails
  6. Chair armrests
  7. Vending machine buttons
  8. Shared pens
  9. Public telephones
  10. Elevator buttons

Germs Easily Transferred Onto Personal Items and Into Homes

public germs grocery store

Washing your hands is your best defense against germs. Remember to do so before eating and after coming home from any public place, including the grocery store (shopping cart handles were the 4th germiest surface tested in the study).

After finding the dirtiest places, the researchers set out to find how easily germs are transferred from one spot to another. They artificially contaminated surfaces with an invisible fluorescent dye then tracked the dye's path over the course of several hours.

People commonly picked up the fake "germs" from doorknobs, telephones and other surfaces, and they spread quickly to people's faces, hair, desktops, pens, computer keyboards and other personal items. From there, the germs spread to people's cars and into their homes, ending up on kitchen appliances, faucets and remote controls.

"The houses lit up like Christmas trees," said Dr. Kelly Reynolds, the study's lead author.

How to Keep as Germ-Free as Possible

Considering that Americans touch about 300 different surfaces every 30 minutes, it's pretty much impossible to avoid all germs. However, there are ways to dramatically reduce your risk of spreading, and getting sick from, these pesky invaders.

First and foremost, wash your hands often. This means before you eat and prepare food, after you come home from the office, the supermarket or just about any public place and, of course, after using the restroom.

"The best defense in the world is hand-washing, which people get tired of doing," Gerba said.

The researchers also recommended routinely disinfecting frequently touched surfaces both at home and in the office. Wiping down appliance handles, computer keyboards, doorknobs, light switches, etc., is an excellent way to help reduce the spread of disease.

So remember, while germs are all around us no matter how "clean" we are, you can go a long way toward keeping yourself and your family safe from germs by washing your hands and wiping down commonly touched surfaces regularly.


International Journal of Environmental Health Research;15(3):225-34.

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