by Thomas Rolfe and Michael Nitti — Originally published in the April 2018 issue of ISSA
The widespread and rapidly growing automation and digitization of our world has led to the installation of billions of touchscreens for our personal and public use. They appear everywhere, from hospitals, airports, schools, and restaurants, to public transit, banks, offices, and our homes.
Warm touchscreens contacted by many people, or by individuals who themselves are in contact with potentially infected surfaces, are ideal hosts and transmitters of infectious disease. In addition to being vectors of infectious disease, these tools are expensive devices and vulnerable to damage from cleaning protocols, vandalism, and impact.
The use of an antimicrobial protective screen could be the simple, inexpensive solution to the health, safety, and replacement problems associated with touchscreen use.
Touchscreens, especially those in health care settings, are ideal medium for pathogens of all kinds to flourish due to regular contamination by unclean human hands and body fluids and the screens’ warm operating temperature. 
While infectious disease problems are arising in schools, restaurants, and elsewhere, due to the increasingly diverse sources of pathogens and the increasing public use of touchscreens, to date, the problem is best documented in the health care sector. One significant infectious disease problem in the health care arena is nosocomial infections, which are infections that originates in hospitals. Scientific reports have found that patients admitted to rooms that were previously occupied by patients infected with common multidrug-resistant organisms (MDROs) are at a 1.5 to 2.5 times increased risk for developing the same infection Since there is no direct contact between the two patients, this risk of infection is almost exclusively associated with the environment. If not properly disinfected, these MDROs can linger on high-touch surfaces for weeks to months, serving as a continued transmission risk for many future patients
Studies conducted to determine contamination levels on smartphones have concluded that a smartphone is highly contaminated with the same microbes that are found on the hands of the user A 2013 project at the University of Surrey tested a large sampling of smartphones and found fecal coliforms, Streptococcus, Staphylococcus aureus, and much more.
Meanwhile, several studies have concluded that cell phones are excellent transmitters of infectious disease between individuals commuting between hospital wards and the community at-large. Evidence from the health care environment suggests that all touchscreens in public use should be considered potential hotspots for the transmission of infectious diseases.
Health care environments have implemented aggressive cleaning protocols for high-touch surfaces, with the unfortunate side effect of damage to screens from the harsh chemicals. Alcohol, ammonia, and bleach can “etch” the surface of a screen and make it appear cloudy. Residue from cleaning products can crystallize and, when touched or rubbed, scratch the touchscreen surface. In nonhealth care settings, fear of damaging the screens means they are rarely cleaned with the vigor needed to remove pathogens.
Hospital environments are unusually rough on equipment and operating room monitors due to their frequent movement and the nature of an emergency environment. As a result, many touchscreen devices are physically damaged or destroyed unnecessarily because they have minimal impact resistance. Likewise, touchscreens in public spaces are subject to vandalism and abuse that can damage the screens.
Replacing or repairing touchscreens from damage is expensive, ranging from US$100 or more for a smartphone to thousands of dollars for specialized equipment found in hospitals, airports, schools, restaurants, public transit, banks, and government buildings.
Although some newer smartphone screens incorporate an improved level of impact resistance, the bane of smartphone owners has been broken touchscreens. This has driven a massive business for aftermarket screen protectors, which to some degree protect the owner’s significant investment in their smartphone.
What is Needed
The above threats are driving the search for touchscreen protectors that incorporate high-quality, long-lasting antimicrobial properties; impact resistance; and resistance to strong chemical sanitization protocols as well as provide privacy features, such as pin number protection. The ideal feature-set for such a multi-layered product would be:
- Broadly acceptable antimicrobial technology
- The ability to retain a 100 percent charge for continued functioning
- Proven impact resistance
- Availability of a privacy layer
- Resistance to chemical damage
A Silver Lining
To date, at least one company already offers patented antimicrobial screen protectors that meet these criteria and are listed as safe by the Federal Drug Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-registered, and, in Europe, REACH compliant. They are available in sizes from smartphones to 60-inch display screens.
The active ingredient of the antimicrobial additives in the solution is silver, a metal known to have antimicrobial properties. Chemists can create glass with a low chemical inertness while still retaining antimicrobial metal ions, such as silver. With the presence of water or moisture, the glass will release these metal ions gradually to function as antimicrobial material.
Silver ions can bond strongly to the cellular enzymes of microbes and inhibit enzyme activity of the cell wall, membrane, and nucleic acids. Silver, with its positive charge, attracts the negatively-charged microbes, thus disturbing their electric balance. The result is that the microbes burst their cell walls and are extinguished. Otherwise, silver ions are taken into the microbes, where they react and bond to the cellular enzyme microbes, thus inhibiting enzyme activity and multiplication of microbes.
Regulators, health care professionals, and corporate leaders are just beginning to recognize the increased threat of infectious disease epidemics facilitated by touchscreens, both from a liability perspective and from a social responsibility perspective. An opportunity exists now to prevent widespread illness and death from infectious disease contracted in public places.
Hospitals currently employ increasingly aggressive sanitizing protocols because of well-defined threats and substantial liabilities. In addition to touchscreens being an ideal environment for the spread of infectious diseases, they are also expensive devices that would benefit from protection from damage due to cleaning protocols or impact.
Promoting prophylactic measures for both health care and public use touchscreens is a simple, yet effective solution for a problem that promises to grow as touchscreens become used more and more extensively in our everyday lives.
 To see the studies cited in the article, visit www.infectioncontrol.tips.
This article was adapted from the original, which appears on www.infectioncontrol.tips.