Read This Before You Make Dinner Tonight

Even if you are a germaphobe when you are out in public, you probably relax on your own turf. Don’t be fooled—germs are lurking in the average home, and they spread amazingly fast.

In one study, we coated the hands of just one person in a family with bacteriophage (a benign surrogate for common gastrointestinal and respiratory viruses). Within eight hours, the hands of every family member had been contaminated, along with things like the refrigerator handle, stove knobs and countertops.

Disease-causing germs, called pathogens, include cold and flu viruses and food-borne bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella that can cause dangerous intestinal tract infections. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 20% of food-poisoning outbreaks are related to food handling in the home.

Here’s where germs are most likely to hide in your home…

Kitchen sponge. It’s the dirtiest thing in the house. When we tested sponges, we found that 15% tested positive for Salmonella. Sponges often are contaminated with E.coli as well. The more you use the sponge—such as for wiping counters and cleaning the microwave—the farther germs will spread.

My advice: Disinfect your wet sponge by zapping it for 30 seconds in the microwave, running it through a dish­washer cycle or soaking it in a bleach-water solution at least once a week.

Cutting boards. We found that the average cutting board had 200 times more fecal bacteria than toilets. You’re safer making a sandwich on a typical toilet seat than on a typical cutting board!

My advice: After cutting meats or uncooked produce, wipe a wooden board generously with a sponge that has been soaked in a solution of two tablespoons of bleach to one gallon of water. Let it sit for a few minutes, then wipe off the excess. You can clean plastic cutting boards by running them through the dishwasher. Some cutting boards are impregnated with triclosan, an ­antimicrobial product. But there’s no good evidence that it makes a ­difference.

Kitchen towels. In a recent study, researchers observed 132 people preparing meals from raw chicken or ground beef. The participants were frequently seen touching their kitchen towels—after handling the raw meats and before washing their hands. When they did wash their hands, they used the contaminated towels to dry them.

My advice: Don’t wipe your hands on towels after handling raw meat. Wash your hands first or use paper towels.

Bars of soap. Germs can live quite comfortably in the “slime” on any bar of soap, even antibacterial soap. This can be risky for people with compromised immune systems—the elderly…transplant patients…and those with serious underlying diseases, such as diabetes.

My advice: Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, even when you are at home, whenever you would wash your hands (unless your hands are very dirty—then wash them first). People who use a hand sanitizer daily can reduce their risk for infection by 70% to 80%. If you prefer not to use a hand ­sanitizer, at least switch from bar soaps to liquids.

Bathroom towels are loaded with germs. That’s partly because people don’t wash their hands thoroughly enough. A scant 16% follow the CDC’s advice to lather the fronts and backs of the hands, between the fingers and under the nails, taking a full 20 seconds to do a thorough job.

And people who wash their hands well after “Number 2” often give them just a ritual rinse after urinating because they believe that urine doesn’t contain germs. Not true. Urine can be loaded with viruses, including adenoviruses (which cause colds, sore throats and other symptoms) and even the virus that causes encephalitis. I’d estimate that up to 70% of the population is excreting viruses in urine at any given time.

Also, every time you flush the toilet with an open lid, bacteria spray as far as six feet into the air around the toilet and can migrate to your towels. And because towels tend to stay moist, they harbor large populations of pathogens. Studies have shown that hand towels can have more E. coli than a toilet bowl after the toilet is flushed.

My advice: Wash bathroom towels every two to three days. Close the toilet lid before you flush. Thoroughly wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after every trip to the bathroom.

Phones, remotes, computer keyboards. When was the last time you wiped down your cell phone, computer keyboard or mouse or TV remote control? When someone in your family has the flu or a cold, about 60% to 80% of household gadgets are probably contaminated with the virus.

Don’t assume that germs can’t survive on inanimate objects. In fact, they may live longer on your cell phone than on your skin (which has antimicrobial properties). And because we use phones frequently, they’re a ­common source of reinfection.

Example: Suppose that while working in the kitchen, you touch raw chicken that has Salmonella. Your phone rings. When you take the call, the germs will be transferred to your cell phone. Later, after you have washed your hands, you’ll pick up the same germs when you use the phone again.

My advice: If you use your phone after touching raw meat, use a disinfecting wipe to clean your phone immediately after washing your hands. At least once a week, wipe down your devices (including computer keyboards) with an alcohol sanitizer. Do it daily during cold and flu season.

Laundry. Sure, it’s dirty, but it’s even dirtier than you think. The average pair of used underwear contains one-tenth gram of fecal material. When you load clothes into the washer, you could be picking up huge amounts of pathogens if someone who wore them was ill—and there’s no guarantee that clothing will be germ-free when the washing cycle is complete. About 95% of households save energy with cold-water ­settings, which do not kill all germs.

My advice: Wash your clothes in hot water. And wash underwear separately from the other clothes, and after the cycle, run the ­machine empty, using two cups of bleach, to kill any remaining germs.

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