Handy Tool or Bacteria Haven?

Tips on how to sanitize one of the filthiest items in your home

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Every home has one and it’s the most bacteria-laden surface under the roof.

The toilet seat?

The garbage can?

Try the kitchen sponge that you use to wash utensils, wipe counters and scrub plates. It’s likely dripping with disease-causing pathogens.

A study by German researchers revealed 362 different types of bacteria present on household kitchen sponges — and half of those types were harmful bacteria.

While to most healthy people, the bacteria they encounter in their everyday life doesn’t unduly affect them, people who are immuno-compromised must remain vigilant about keeping bad bacteria at bay. And, for those who can’t stand the “yuck” factor of germy kitchen sponges, here are a few options.

• Ditch sponges altogether. “The majority of food borne illnesses people experience are almost always preventable,” said Nancy Rissler, a ServSafe certified instructor and proctor in Onondaga Community College’s hospitality management major. “A lot of people think you can throw a sponge into the microwave and it will kill anything on it. It may kill bacteria like bacillus cereus, Listeria, or E. coli, but viruses are different. The most important preventive measure to control viruses like hepatitis A and noroviruses is to practice good personal hygiene when handling food and food-contact surfaces.”

• Know the difference between cleaning and sanitizing. “Cleaning is removal of debris on non-food contact surfaces, like the walls and floor,” Rissler said. “Cleaning and sanitizing is for items that have food contact: any utensils, pans, plates, cutting boards.”

• Realize how hard pathogens are to detect. “The three types of hazards from the environment that make our food unsafe are biological, chemical and physical,” Rissler said. “Some come from the air, water, soil, animals or dirty surfaces.

“When it comes to pathogens, we can’t always see them, smell them or taste them,” Rissler added. “That’s the problem. It’s a whole other world.”

• Choose clean-up tools wisely. “Anything that absorbs and harbors bacteria, we don’t want that material,” Rissler said. “It may be time to rethink cotton towels and cloths. We want to start cooking with a clean slate. Why even have something that’s so absorbent and collects bacteria? I really believe in microfibers that will not harbor bacteria to use to clean and sanitize. As for bottle brushes, go with something non-absorbent, like nylon, not sponges or anything that will wick or absorb pathogens.

• Use disposable cloths. “Cotton cloths, they’re like wicks, collecting and harboring pathogens,” Rissler said. “I use single-use cloths. A Handi-wipe is a synthetic, non-absorbent cloth. They don’t wick like a cotton cloth.”

• Don’t use the “five second rule” for a dropped cleaning tool.  “Norovirus is very contagious,” Rissler said. “It takes only 18 viral particles in your food or on your hand to make you sick. The amount of particles that fit on the head of a pin can infect 1,000 people. It’s like going through the kitchen and pick out of their food. We have so much control of the daily practices of our lives to eliminate food borne illnesses.”

• If you do use dishcloths, get out clean, sanitized, designated cloths often.

“You wouldn’t use that same cloth to clean your toilet,” Rissler said. “Designate it as a kitchen cloth. Clean it with detergent and hot water cycle on the washing machine to clean it and to sanitize it, the hot water cycle and the heat of the dryer would also help kill any pathogens when it comes to bacteria.”

Of course, after the cloth has been exposed to a known germy surface, like raw meat juice, grab a clean cloth.

• Clean dish cleaning tools properly. “Put them through the dishwasher,” Rissler. “Soak in bleach water with the correct concentration. On the back of the bleach bottle, it says how many ounces of the bleach you should use. Read the instruction. It isn’t the more, the better.”

• Limit germy messes. For example, many people believe they must wash their raw, whole chicken before roasting it. Rissler said that doing so spreads bacteria, since the rinse water splashes around the sink. Anyone worried about the chicken’s cleanliness should realize that processors clean the birds before wrapping them for selling.

• Keep kitchen surfaces clean. “To prevent bacterial growth, use warm and soapy water and/or a bleach solution to clean up surfaces that are used for food preparation,” said registered nurse Wendy Kurlowicz who serves as director of community environmental health, Onondaga County Health Department.

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