Human skin and food particles appear to be the top sources of the microbes found on ATMs. That was the finding of a new study, where researchers went through automated teller machines in New York City and gathered data on the microbes found in the machines’ keypads.
While it might seem like an unusual place to analyze microbe sources, ATMs are part of our daily lives, the place where we often have to go to withdraw money for our daily needs. Hundreds of people use the ATMs closest to us each day, and with each succeeding use, there is always the chance of harmful bacteria populating the keypads, posing potential risks to the next people who use the machines. With all that in mind, the new study isn’t the first in recent years to look into the microbes that surreptitiously coexist near us or inside us, as well as their potential impact on our health.
According to the Washington Post, earlier studies had looked into how people are followed each day by a cloud of bacteria, one that is as “unique and identifiable as a fingerprint,” as well as the microbial creatures found in the Boston subway. And in the new analysis, researchers had headed to New York City to check out the microbes in the ATMs of various neighborhoods in the city.
The study was led by biologist Jane M. Carlton, who led her team in visiting 66 ATM keypads in eight New York City neighborhoods, including Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. The visits took place in June and July 2014, as the researchers took swabs of each of the keypads, and utilized DNA sequencing technology to analyze the microbe content in the samples. All in all, they were able to gather information on the “average” microbial community populated by the hundreds of ATM users who head to the machine each day to enter their credentials on the keypads.
The Washington Post reported that it wasn’t too surprising that most of the microbes found on the ATM keypads live on human skin. As each person sheds tens of thousands of skin cells on an hourly basis, it proved to be perfectly understandable that skin was the main source. But what surprised the researchers was how food crumbs and morsels were the other notable source of microbes.
The ATMs yielded various food-related sources of microbes and bacteria depending on the neighborhood and the racial makeup of the area. Microbes from bony fish and mollusks were prevalent in the Asian neighborhoods of Chinatown and Flushing. In primarily white areas like midtown Manhattan, remnants of baked goods led to the presence of Xeromyces bisporus, a moldy form of bacteria that was “originally isolated from licorice” and blamed for the spoilage of cakes and other sugary foods. Chicken, on the other hand, was the food-related source of microbes found in Central Harlem South and other African-American neighborhoods.
In all, the researchers believe that the study represents a snapshot of the New York City microbiome, but also a glance at the hidden dangers of using ATM keypads quite possibly touched by hundreds of other people.
“The results are of particular relevance with respect to humans, since the surfaces studied are touched by people and could potentially mediate interpersonal transfer of microbes or microbial DNA.”
In a separate report from the New York Times, Carlton described the look at microbes in ATMs as part of a broader initiative to study New York City’s urban microbial ecosystem. She called the new findings “another piece in the jigsaw puzzle of microbes” in the city. Carlton’s team plans to investigate New York City’s “pets and pests,” meaning dogs, cats, and pigeons for the former category, and rats and cockroaches for the latter.
[Featured Image by Chris Hondros/Getty Images]