Surface to Air Microbes – The dirty dozen of the germiest places in your home
By Robin Roberts
Here’s a foul fact: The average kitchen sponge is 200,000 times dirtier than the average toilet seat. It’s even germier than your garbage can or diaper pail, according to the book, The Secret Life of Germs by Dr. Philip Tierno. After you wash your dishes or cutting board, then use the same sponge to wipe your countertops, you’re spreading bacteria across a wide surface, leaving behind the potential for salmonella or E. coli contamination.
Still, it’s sponge-worthy for a few more uses, so simply sanitize it by soaking it in a chlorine bleach solution of one part bleach with nine parts water, or microwave it when wet. Afterward, make sure it dries completely, as organisms wither without moisture.
As nasty as it can be, the lowly sponge is not alone in its bacteria-breeding potential. There are plenty more items and surfaces populated with pathogens lurking in your home. It’s enough to make you sick (literally). In fact, no surface is completely sterile, says Dr. Karen Bartlett, professor and program director of UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. But that’s no reason to live in a hazmat suit. “Luckily for us, humans co-evolved with micro-organisms, so the vast majority of what we encounter in the environment is totally benign,” says Dr. Bartlett. “Plus, our functioning immune systems take care of most microbe encounters.”
She says early exposure to the environment as children helps “tune” our systems, and that kids raised “too clean” tend to have more allergies later in life. “That being said, where the problems arise are with micro-organisms that are potentially pathogenic, or allergenic, or allowed to grow in places that we don’t want them,” she says. Some of those include the following dirty dozen:
The Cutting Board
Using the same cutting board to prepare raw meat and fresh produce can transfer microbes such as salmonella, campylobacter or E. coli, says Dr. Bartlett. “The meat will be fine once it’s cooked, but your salad is now contaminated, causing nasty gastrointestinal upsets or worse.”
Remedy: Always clean cutting boards with hot water and detergent, diluted bleach or hydrogen peroxide after contact with raw poultry or meat. If it’s plastic, run it through the dishwasher.
The Door Handle
“Noroviruses spread like wildfire through cruise ships, nursing homes, dormitories, etc., because so many surfaces are contaminated by someone with symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea,” says Dr. Bartlett. When infected people touch a door handle or light switch, and you follow behind and touch the same surface, the virus is transferred from hand to mouth, eyes or nose.
The same is true of colds and flu. If a sick person sneezes or coughs around you and you walk through their contagious cloud and inhale those suspended droplets, you’ll walk away with the same cold or flu. Blow your nose then touch any surface with your viral mucous and you’re passing your illness on to anyone and everyone who touches the same surface.
Remedy: Disinfect door knobs often (more so when you or someone in the household is sick) with wipes containing quaternary ammonium compounds. Wipe appliance handles with a microfiber cloth dampened with surface-safe cleaner.
The Kitchen Sink
Rinsing or soaking dirty dishes in the sink leaves behind food particles that serve up a breeding ground for bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella. The faucets can be even worse, as they can get clogged with mildewy sludge. Who wants a glass of water now?
Remedy: Swish your sink, including the drain plug, daily with a solution of bleach and water. Every few months, remove the faucet aerator and soak it in vinegar for at least 15 minutes. Use an old toothbrush on gunk, if necessary.
You’d think a nice hot bath would leave you squeaky clean, but it could be making you dirtier. Studies have found fungi, fecal matter and staphylococcus bacteria in 26% of tubs and virtually all whirlpool tubs (where water gets trapped in the pipes) tested. You might want to shower after . . .
Remedy: After bathing, clean and disinfect your tub with bleach or bathroom cleanser, then dry with a clean towel, and clean the whirlpool pipes regularly.
Here’s the stuff of nightmares: “There are many kinds of mites, but one that causes some people trouble is called Dermatophagoides pteronys, the common house dust mite,” says Dr. Bartlett. “This mite is highly allergenic, and lives on pillows and mattresses where it survives on the moisture we supply through our sweat.”
If you think that’s gross, consider your sheets. Studies have found feces, salmonella, and E. coli on bedding — even those fresh out of a washer, and even after just one night’s sleep.
Remedy: “In addition to washing pillow cases and sheets once a week in hot water [germs can live through cold and warm water], it may be necessary to encase mattresses and pillows in special fabric that prevents the allergen, which is actually the fecal pellet – or poop – produced by the mite,” says Dr. Bartlett.
Mull this over the next time your rug rats crawl across the floor: Research has revealed the average carpet contains about 200,000 bacteria per square inch, mainly because the average person sheds about 1.5 million skin cells every hour. When those cells land on the rug, they become a stomping ground for bacteria. Mix in a few cookie crumbs, a bit of pollen, a dab of pet dander and you have a smorgasbord for germs. The suction on the average vacuum cleaner isn’t strong enough to reach the bottom of your carpet so you’re really just creating clouds of microbes that resettle once you hit the off switch.
Remedy: Hire a reputable company to steam-clean at least annually, and cover high-traffic areas with machine-washable rugs.
The Coffee Maker
You probably don’t intend to brew up a batch of bacteria with your morning joe including, gulp, E. coli, staphylococcus, streptococcus and bacillus cereus. A Loyola University study found these bacteria lurking on the machine, in the water, in the grounds holder and inside the water reservoir, where as many as 100,000 colony-forming units of bacteria were found. Now that’s a jolt.
Remedy: Wash your hands before using the machine, flush it with vinegar regularly, use filtered water and let the unit and its parts dry completely after cleaning.
Workaholics and gamers glued to their screens while eating, sneezing and coughing on their keyboards tap out a host of harmful bacteria, including E. coli and staphylococcus.
Remedy: Shake or vacuum out crumbs, or try a Post-It Note to pluck them out. Clean keys with alcohol or bleach wipes.
Listen to this: A British study revealed the average cell phone contains 18 times more bacteria than a flush handle in a men’s restroom. And pathogens are apparently easily transferred from glass to skin, and from there it’s just a hop, skip and a jump from fingers to eyes, nose or mouth — and a sick day.
Remedy: Avoid sharing your phone, and clean it daily with antibacterial wipes with an alcohol content of at least 60 percent.
Consider how often and how many people (especially in hotel rooms) use the remote control, and you’ve got endless channels for bacteria transfer. Then consider how many times it’s dropped on the floor, where it picks up many more lovely little germs. A University of Virginia study found half of TV remotes tested positive for rhinovirus, which can survive for days, as well as other germs that can thrive for months ensconced inside the cracks of the rubber buttons.
Remedy: Cleaning remotes with a bleach solution or alcohol wipe won’t completely kill the germs because you won’t be able to reach into the cracks. Better to cover them with a plastic sleeve that can be washed, and take along Ziploc baggies on your next trip.
Many people keep their toothbrush on a counter near the toilet which, when flushed, sends a spray of bacteria into the air, where they float for at least two hours, eventually settling on surfaces, including your toothbrush, where it’s transferred to your pearly whites.
Remedy: Keep your toothbrush as far away from the toilet as possible, allow it to dry out between uses (bacteria thrive in moist places), and replace it often, especially after you’ve been sick. And close the lid before you flush!
The Salt and Pepper Shaker
A University of Virginia study using test subjects who were showing signs of a cold revealed viruses clinging to the shakers in every subject’s home. Pass (on) the salt.
Remedy: Include the seasoning shakers in your regular wipe-down after dining. And always wash your hands before and after eating, especially if you or someone at home is sick.
“Wash/disinfect surfaces and items after using them,” says Dr. Bartlett. “Don’t share drinking glasses or smoking materials, hair brushes, toothbrushes, towels — any personal care item, really — unless you either know the person really well, or you’re willing to have whatever it is that they might have.”
She says it’s impossible under most circumstances to wipe down the strap or pole on a bus or train, which hold many grubby hands over a day. “I’m a big fan of using waterless hand disinfectant when I’ve been in public places like buses, public toilets, etc. Wash your hands after using the toilet, wash your hands before preparing food, wash your hands before eating. Did I mention washing your hands?”