Shutterstock.com

It can take as little as 2 hours for one stomach-flu sufferer to contaminate half of a single office.

Say some under-the-weather person at your workplace coughed into their palm and touched a doorknob. Beginning with that one contaminated object, how long would it take for the virus to run rampant through the building?

Would it be a day? Eight hours? Perhaps the best answer if you're a germophobe is "You really don't want to know," because scientists have tested this scenario and the speed can be frighteningly quick. From the instant those unsanitary fingers touch the knob, it could be just 2 to 4 hours before the contagion has spread to 40 to 60 percent of frequently handled surfaces, as well as your coworkers. Take a moment now to wash hands.

This distressing assessment comes from infectious-disease researchers attending this week's Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in Washington, D.C. (One of them's giving a live talk this morning if you want all the grody details.) For their study, they picked a real doozy of a bug to simulate—norovirus, aka the "super stomach flu" made so famous by cruise-ship journeys to hell. Norovirus, which is often spread by touching contaminated objects and then your mouth, is the most common source of acute gastroenteritis in America. Each year it causes as many as 71,000 hospitalizations, 800 deaths, and millions of grotesque trips to the bathroom.

Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona and colleagues didn't devise a norovirus outbreak, of course. They used a bacteriophage that has the same shape and endurance level against disinfectants. Here's Gerba describing how the researchers proceeded:

The phage was placed on 1 to 2 commonly touched surfaces (door knob or table top) at the beginning of the day in office buildings, conference room and a healthcare facility. After various periods of time (2 to 8 hours) they sampled 60 to 100 fomites, surfaces capable of carrying infectious organisms (light switches, bed rails, table tops, countertops, push buttons, coffee pots handles, sink tap handles, door knobs, phones and computer equipment), for the phages.

"Within 2 to 4 hours between 40 to 60% of the fomites sampled were contaminated with virus," says Gerba.

Thankfully for the nation's collective gut, the study did not end with a simple, You are doomed if somebody at work gets sick. The researchers did a followup experiment that managed to reduce the virus's spread by 80 to 99 percent. Their secret weapon? Making workers and janitorial staff use disinfectant wipes once a day. Says Gerba: "The results show that viral contamination of fomites in facilities occurs quickly, and that a simple intervention can greatly help to reduce exposure to viruses."

Top image: igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A view of a Harlem corner.
    Equity

    How Ronald Reagan Halted the Early Anti-Gentrification Movement

    An excerpt from Newcomers, a new book by Matthew L. Schuerman, documents the early history of the anti-gentrification and back-to-the-city movements.

  2. photo: A woman crosses an overpass above the 101 freeway in Los Angeles, California.
    Transportation

    Navigation Apps Changed the Politics of Traffic

    In an excerpt from the new book The Future of Transportation, CityLab’s Laura Bliss adds up the “price of anarchy” when it comes to traffic navigation apps.

  3. photo: A metro train at Paris' Gare Du Nord.
    Transportation

    Can the Paris Metro Make Room for More Riders?

    The good news: Transit ridership is booming in the French capital. But severe crowding now has authorities searching for short-term solutions.

  4. photo: Mayor Luigi Brugnaro walks on St Mark's Square as exceptionally high tidal flooding engulfed the city.
    Environment

    Its Flood Barrier Unfinished, Venice Submerges Under a Record Tide

    Seasonal acqua alta reached the highest level since 1966, leaving two dead and devastating damage. The city’s ambitious flood barrier isn’t ready yet.

  5. a bike rider and bus riders in Seattle.
    Perspective

    There’s No App for Getting People Out of Their Cars

    “Mobility as a Service” boosters say that technology can nudge drivers to adopt transit and micromobility. But big mode shifts will take more than a cool app.  

×