Could your germy credit card make you ill?

By Marianne Curphey

New research reveals that you should wash your hands after using your debit or credit card.

Worldwide hygiene campaign Global Handwashing Day found that nearly one 10 bank cards and one in seven notes are contaminated with faecal organisms.

How dirty are your cards?
The research, conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Queen Mary, University of London, investigated levels of bacterial contamination on hands, credit cards and currency.

It found 8% of cards and 6% of notes showed gross contamination -- meaning the levels of bacteria detected were equal to that you would expect to find in a dirty toilet bowl. credit-card-germs

The participants who took part in the scientific study were also asked to fill out a questionnaire with the results revealing only 39% of respondents washed their hands before eating. Nearly all participants (91%) said that they washed their hands after using the toilet -- yet the levels of faecal organisms on the cards and currency suggest otherwise.

The bottom line -- the research reveals that, by handling credit cards and money, we are potentially coming into contact with bacteria like E Coli and Staphylococci.

Why are cards so dirty?
In short, people may not be as hygienic as they claim.

"People may tell us they wash their hands but the research shows us different, and highlights just how easily transferable these pathogens are -- surviving on our money and cards," said Dr Ron Cutler, who led the research at Queen Mary, in a statement.

Although most participants claimed to wash their hands after using the toilet, when researchers swabbed people's hands they found one-third had traces of faecal matter on them. The research team also observed people at public toilets and found only 32% of men and 64% of women actually washed their hands.

"Hands are vectors of germs, and when people fail to wash their hands after using the toilet they can pick up hundreds of millions of germs," says Dr Val Curtis, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, who leads the UK campaign for Global Handwashing Day.  "Any surface that they then touch -- such as a counter, coins, notes or a credit card, will then be contaminated with a thin layer of germs."

It doesn't help that bacteria can be quite resilient.

"On a hard surface, bacteria can live for hours, if not days," Curtis says. "On a damp surface they can live longer, and if you keep your credit card in your pocket it provides the ideal warm temperature to incubate them."

Can your card really make you ill?
Even if contaminated, your credit cards won't actually pose a grave health risk.

"Your credit card or mobile phone is not going to make you ill or kill you," Curtis says. "Instead, we are trying to disgust people into good hand hygiene so that they don't pass on bacteria and viruses."

There's also little point in washing or decontaminating your own phone or card, according to Curtis. Simply wash your hands well before eating and after going to the toilet. To best prevent cross-contamination, wash your hands like a surgeon, scrubbing every nook and cranny. But it should suffice to just wash your hands regularly, and to wash them when you come in from shopping and handling cards and cash, Curtis says.

Another tip: If you're in the habit of holding your credit card between your teeth while your hands are full, stop. Keeping your card away from your mouth will at least ensure you're not ingesting any of the bacteria on it, says a spokeswoman for the Health Protection Agency (HPA), which helps to protect the health of the public in the UK.

It's up to individuals to decide whether to clean and disinfect cards from time to time, the HPA spokeswoman adds. Yet it's important to remember that your bank cards aren't the only contaminated things you handle over the course of your day. Mobile phones could be just as filthy. And there are lots of things in the average woman's handbag that would be found to contain bacteria if they were tested.

Be extra cautious with your cards if you're travelling on holiday or business, Curtis warns. In developing counties, the rates of diarrhoeal disease are very high and people may not be hand-washing with soap, she says.

See related: Pay by handshake: The way of the future?, Your wallet was stolen. Now what?

Published: 30 November 2012