Germs in Your Home: Kitchen Sponges
A kitchen sponge can carry more than 134,000 bacteria per square inch, according to a 2007 survey funded by Reckitt Benckiser, the maker of Lysol, and performed by the Hygiene Council. Researchers swabbed 35 U.S. homes for bacteria in 32 different sites.
What makes a sponge so buggy? Using sponges for more than one purpose is common, and people tend to keep their sponges too long, allowing bacteria to multiply, says Kelly Bright, PhD, assistant research scientist at the University of Arizona. “It’s a moist environment, and a sponge is a nice breeding ground.”
Cross-contamination of sponges is common, Bright tells WebMD. You cut raw meat, wipe it up, then prepare another dish and wipe with the same sponge. On a typical sponge you’re likely to find Salmonella (which can cause food-borne illness) and Campylobacter, which can cause diarrhea and abdominal pain, Bright says.
Remedy: Replace your sponge once a week or so, Bright suggests. Or put it in the dishwasher regularly or soak it in bleach for about 15 minutes. “The dirtier the sponge, the longer you have to soak it to be effective.”
Germs in Your Home: Kitchen Sink
Whether empty or full of dishes, the kitchen sink is a germ hot spot, says Bright. “People do a lot of food preparation there,” and that food can lead to contamination, with kitchen drains having more than 500,000 bacteria per square inch, according to the Hygiene Council survey.
Remedy: If you think the last bit of soap suds from washing dishes will take care of things, think again, says Philip Tierno, Jr., PhD, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at Tisch Hospital, New York University Medical Center, and associate professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU School of Medicine.
“Soap doesn’t kill bacteria,” says Tierno, the U.S. representative for the Hygiene Council. His favorite cleaning solution: bleach and water. The FDA suggests kitchen sanitizers or a homemade solution of one teaspoon chlorine bleach in a quart of water, then letting it sit on the surface you’re cleaning for 10 minutes.
Germs in Your Home: Faucet Handles
Both bathroom and kitchen faucet handles are germ-catchers. In the Hygiene Council survey, kitchen faucet handles carried more than 13,000 bacteria per square inch and bathroom faucet handles had more than 6,000 bugs per square inch.
Remedy: “Use a disinfectant cleaner spray every time you clean up,” suggests Charles Gerba, PhD, professor of soil, water and environmental science at the University of Arizona, who has researched microbes extensively. In the kitchen, that should be once a day, he says. In the bathroom, at least once a week.
Germs in Your Home: Home Offices
Surprise: your home office is germier than the typical work office, says Gerba. In a recent study, he compared the average number of bacteria in work and home office to find the numbers of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can cause serious skin infections.
In his sampling of 60 home offices and 91 work offices, five sites were tested in each. MRSA was isolated in 15 home offices but no work offices. And overall, more bacteria were found in home offices than work offices. Germiest spots in the home office were the keyboard, mouse, phone, and desktop.
“Probably people eat more in the home office,” Gerba says, partially explaining the larger bug population. “You turn your desk into a bacteria cafeteria.”
Remedy: “Use disinfectant at least once a week” on home office surfaces, suggests Gerba.
Germs in Your Home: Toilet Bowl
Not surprisingly, the top germ winner in the Hygiene Council survey was the toilet bowl (but not the seat) with 3.2 million bacteria per square inch. Still, Gerba insists, kitchens are dirtier overall. “There are about 200 times more fecal bacteria on a cutting board,” he says, “than on a toilet seat.”
Remedy: Toilet bowl germs form a biofilm, that slimy layer that develops when bacteria attach to a support such as the bowl, says Tierno. Tackle that film with your chlorine bleach and water solution.
Germs in Your Home: Bathtub
Never mind that you think the bubble bath left you and your tub squeaky clean. Lurking near the drain of the bathtub is nearly 120,000 bacteria per square inch, according to calculations made in the Hygiene Council Survey.
Remedy: Give your bathtub a buff with bath cleaner or a chlorine-water cleaning solution mixed up at home.
Germs in Your Home: Shower Curtain
The crud or soap scum that collects on your shower curtain probably Sphingomonas and Methylobacterium bacteria,says Norman Pace, PhD, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, University of Colorado, who collected biofilm from four vinyl shower curtains that had been in place more than six months in Boulder-area homes.
They found an abundance of Sphingomonas and Methylobacterium bacteria, and both could pose a problem for people who are immune-compromised, such as those who are HIV positive, or who have other diseases that make them prone to infections.
Remedy: Regular cleaning or replacement of the curtains is advised.
Germs in Your Home: Wet Laundry
What are germs doing in your washing machine? Probably contaminating other clothes. A load of just-washed clothes may look sparkling clean, but guess again.
Researchers at the University of Arizona found that intestinal viruses like hepatitis A are readily transferred from contaminated clothes to uncontaminated clothing during the washing.
Remedy: Bleach and drying time. The use of bleach reduced the number of infectious viruses on swatches after washing and drying by nearly 100%, the researchers found. Putting clothes through the drying cycle helped reduce viruses, too, according to Bright, and a hot water wash is good. “If you use the dryer, put it on hot,” she says, to kill remaining germs. And “separate adult clothes from kids’ clothes.”
Germs in Your Home: Vacuum Cleaner
It’s supposed to clean, but your vacuum cleaner is also a source of contamination, Gerba tells WebMD. “We looked at 30 vacuum brushes. â‚¬ Fifty percent contained coliform fecal bacteria and 13% E. coli,” says Gerba. E. coli can cause diarrhea and other health problems. Coliform bacteria don’t typically cause illness, but are often found in the presence of other disease-causing organisms.
“Vacuums become meals on wheels” for the bugs, Gerba says.
Remedy: “There’s not much you can do about the brush,” he says. “Vacuum the cleanest areas first and the dirtiest last,” he suggests. That way, you’ll be less likely to spread around as much bacteria. And if you use a bagless vacuum cleaner, wash your hands afterward, since bacteria can remain in the receptacle.
Germs in Your Home: Beds
Mattresses and pillows provide food for dust mites, Tierno tells WebMD, and bedding can also be a reservoir for molds and spores. “In the mattress core there are all sorts of human secretions and excretions,” he says. “Fecal matter as well as sweat and semen.”
What’s the problem? “Bedroom debris is probably one of the biggest causes of allergic rhinitis,” Tierno says. “Allergy from dust mites is also a problem.”
Remedy: Place an “impervious” outer cover over the mattresses and pillows, Tierno says, to keep the debris contained. Then wash bedding regularly in water hot enough to kill the bugs.