Gas pumps were among the dirtiest surfaces around even before COVID-19

Gas prices around the country are approaching their lowest figures in nearly two decades, but who is brave enough to pump it these days?

Some stations are bringing full-service gasoline back to California for the first time since the 1970s. Elsewhere? Grab some disinfectant or a roll of paper towels — If you can find some.

The coronavirus is spreading rapidly around the region and the nation. Its germs could live anywhere, especially a surface as grimy and inconsistently cleaned as the gas pump.

Well before the coronavirus crisis, the handles of gas pumps were found to be the filthiest of any surface out there in a 2011 study by personal hygiene company Kimberly-Clark.

“It comes down to the fact that nobody cleans the things that you’re going to touch on a daily basis,” Dr. Kelly Arehart, program leader of the firm’s Healthy Workplace Project, told Reuters at the time.

It’s a reality of life in a car-commuting corridor such as the Sacramento Valley and Woodland: the trip to the pump every week or more.

So, how do you do it safely when the coronavirus can live on surfaces for hours, if not days?

Start with latex gloves, paper towels and hand sanitizer, according to Consumer Reports’ auto experts.

Donning a fresh pair of nitrile or latex gloves before each fill-up and disposing of them before getting back in the car is your safest bet. But short of that, here’s a set of tips from Consumer Reports:

  • Try to use paper towels that are sometimes available at the pump or have some with you to cover your hands when you grip the handle.
  • Do the same to isolate yourself from the keypad when entering payment information.
  • Throw away any paper towels you might have used.
  • Use hand sanitizer to make sure your hands are clean after you’re done and before you get back into your car.
  • Cleaning your hands after you’re done seems like the quickest, easiest precaution. But some drivers might want to have disinfectant wipes handy for wiping down the gas pump handle and the payment keypad before pumping.

“This process ensures that I’m not inadvertently transferring the virus from a high-touch surface like a gas pump to my vehicle’s door handle, and from there into the interior,” said Gabriel Shenhar, associate director of the auto test program.

Be sure to not only protect yourself from the gas pump, but also from the keypad.

What ranked just below the gas pump on the list of filthiest surfaces? ATM buttons.

Longtime Bay Area epidemiologist Dr. George Lemp recently drew attention to those, as well as some other places you might find under-the-radar gunk, like payment touch screens at grocery stores.

“So many people are touching them day in and day out. Someone who’s infected could touch the screen and it’s a great place for viruses to be deposited,” said Lemp, who was chief of HIV/AIDS surveillance for San Francisco’s public health department from 1986 to 1995. “Then a healthy person comes after them and can pick up the germs.”

So, it’s a good idea to keep a roll of paper towels or disinfectant wipes, or even a box of latex gloves in your trunk for those trips to the pump.

BY EVAN WEBEK,