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Germs found in places you'd least expect

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Esther Han

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How to avoid the salmonella salad

Hygiene expert Dr Charles Gerba, who is in Australia representing a bleach company, tells us how to keep household germ hot spots sparkling clean.

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Never mind the toilet, the kitchen is where the war against the germ is.

Sponges are havens for faecal bacteria, the kitchen sink has more germs than a toilet seat, but the dirtiest surface is the chopping board, microbiologist Charles Gerba says.

The only thing bleach will do is get rid of the nasty black spot on the rubber ring which won't cause any illnesses 

"People think the toilet seat is dirty," Dr Gerba, who is known as "Dr Germ", says.

Dr Charles Gerba ... he says there is about 200 times more faecal bacteria on a typical chopping board compared to the average toilet seat.

Dr Charles Gerba ... he says there is about 200 times more faecal bacteria on a typical chopping board compared to the average toilet seat.

"But there is about 200 times more faecal bacteria on a typical chopping board compared to the average toilet seat."

Bathrooms tend to be over-cleaned and sanitised. But the preparation of raw food products in the kitchen means it has become the perfect breeding ground for germs.

The cleanest looking surfaces can be the dirtiest.

The Salmonella bug in a petrie dish in a laboratory at Melbourne University.

The Salmonella bug in a petrie dish in a laboratory at Melbourne University. Photo: John Lamb

"Wiping down a kitchen bench actually spreads the germs," says the professor from the University of Arizona, who is in Australia representing White King Bleach.

He implores people to disinfect key areas in the kitchen and regularly wash their hands because this can reduce the odds of getting an illness by 50 per cent.

"My research shows 15 per cent of sponges and dish cloths have salmonella growing in [them]," he says. "We need to regularly throw them out and disinfect the key areas."

Chopping boards are a breeding ground for germs.

Chopping boards are a breeding ground for germs. Photo: Natalie Boog

He suggests people carry anti-bacterial wipes and wash their hands regularly.

Mary-Louise McLaws, professor of epidemiology in healthcare infection and infectious diseases control at the University of New South Wales, agrees that sponges should be thrown out each week.

But she disagrees with the suggestion by Dr Gerba that we need to disinfect surfaces habitually.

The kitchen sink has more germs than a toilet seat, says Dr Charles Gerba.

The kitchen sink has more germs than a toilet seat, says Dr Charles Gerba. Photo: Belinda Pratten

"Ideas about sterilising and disinfecting household surfaces are just nonsensical," she says. "We're not performing surgery in our homes; nor do we have immunocompromised patients."

She urges people not to use bleach and other harsh chemicals, which can build up in the environment and enter our water supply.

"Practise good hygiene. All you need is soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitiser," she says.

'Touch Generation' ... Dr Charles Gerba says we are sharing more surfaces than people ever have in history.

'Touch Generation' ... Dr Charles Gerba says we are sharing more surfaces than people ever have in history. Photo: Virginia Star

Professor McLaws adds that faecal bacteria are not pathogenic and says it is enough to clean with an alcohol-based spray and to regularly wash chopping boards.

"We don't like bacteria because they spoil the food," she explains. "But you need pathogenic bacteria to make us sick immediately."

Dr Gerba describes us as the 'Touch Generation' and says there is an urgent need to develop better cleaning habits.

"The elevator button for the ground floor, the handle of your shopping trolley, the television remote in your hands. We're touching and sharing more surfaces every day than people ever have in history," he says.

And to those locked in the debate about whether some exposure to dirt can help boost the immune system, Dr Gerba cautions not to confuse dirt with germs.

"You can have the cleanest looking house but have bad germs that can cause illness," he says. "A child under two will put their finger in their face about 80 times an hour and every time there is the potential of moving germs into his face."

He says regular disinfections reduced the risks of getting an illness from germs and kept the odds in our favour.

Dr Gerba also says that the water left in the base of the drum of a washing machine harboured germs. His solution is to give it a weekly "mouth wash" by using a bleach tablet.

"Nowadays people prefer to do cold water washes on short cycles," he says. "But you reduce the number of germs by using warm cycles."

But Professor McLaws insists that normal detergent is sufficient to kill most pathogens that can cause illnesses.

"We don't eat or lick our clothes," she says. "The only thing bleach will do is get rid of the nasty black spot on the rubber ring, which won't cause any illnesses."

22 comments

  • On the TV show QI, Uncle Fry said that if you microwave your dishcloth/sponge after using it, the resulting steam nukes most of the bad guys.

    Sounds plausible ... is there any truth in this?

    Commenter
    Ian
    Location
    NZ
    Date and time
    April 20, 2012, 3:04PM
    • Ask Dr Karl!

      Commenter
      Bec
      Location
      Blue Mountains
      Date and time
      April 20, 2012, 4:01PM
    • Probably yes - it sounds like the home equivalent of an autoclave (which I use in my day job).

      Commenter
      Dr Kiwi
      Date and time
      April 20, 2012, 4:02PM
    • Dr Karl? Nah, I prefer Dr Kiwi :)

      "Nowadays people prefer to do cold water washes on short cycles," he says. "But you reduce the number of germs by using warm cycles."

      Dr Kiwi, my layman's brain calls BS on this tidbit, mainly because I thought germs would be more likely to absolutely thrive in *warm* and moist conditions.

      What are your thoughts?

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      April 20, 2012, 4:57PM
  • The suggestion that we can sterilise the world and control germs is fantastically misguided. We are surrounded by trillions of bacteria, and there is nothing we can do about that. On the whole they are beneficial to our wellbeing. Sterilised environments are very bad for us, and the chemicals we use in this mindless and wasteful pursuit are harmful and counter-productive.

    Commenter
    Andrew
    Location
    Adelaide
    Date and time
    April 20, 2012, 3:05PM
    • News flash: we all have bacteria all over us, around us and inside us. It is perfectly natural. Avoiding infection is common sense.

      I dislike clean freaks almost as much as zombies of the expiry-date cult.

      Commenter
      AJ
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      April 20, 2012, 3:06PM
      • What a beat up! This story contains both arguments in equal measures, which is a way of journalism filling space on a dead Friday arvo. Further, there have been numerous studies and articles on the pointlessness of disinfecting your kitchen benches and boards - or hands for that matter. Most germs don't survive very long on a surface and those that do are things we are in contact with in all areas of our lives anyway. Antibacterial products are just a wonderful example of creating the solution for a problem that does not exist. Instead, they themselves are causing problems - with our water, our wildlife and our own health.

        Commenter
        Ell
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        April 20, 2012, 3:07PM
        • spot on Ell - I love when we have a story on ACA or Today tonight showing there's bacteria everywhere, we are all going to die. A few weeks later, often the same reporter showing that we clean everything too well, we're all going to die

          Bacteria are on us, in us & pretty much on everything we touch, they'll be here lang after humans go extinct

          Commenter
          paully
          Date and time
          April 20, 2012, 3:39PM
      • I thought the Mythbusters did this study a while back. Old news.

        Commenter
        Knee Jerk
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        April 20, 2012, 3:15PM
        • 1. When you cough, cover your mouth with the outside of your hand, not inside.
          2. Press public buttons (lifts, traffic lights etc) with your elbow
          3. Cold spreads easily through sharing computer keyboards, mouse and touch screens - be aware of that and avoid sharing or disinfect if possible

          Commenter
          MD
          Location
          Sydney
          Date and time
          April 20, 2012, 3:19PM

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