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Is your home germ-free?

Posted: April 12, 2008 1:13 a.m.
Updated: June 13, 2008 5:03 a.m.
Home sweet home - our homes are supposed to be a haven from many of the stresses of life. It is there that we find an escape from the noise and traffic of the outside world, and seek refuge from the heat of summer or the cold of winter. Our homes are the setting for hundreds of life's most precious moments and memories.

But is your home also a haven for germs? Millions of them can lurk invisibly on doorknobs, countertops, bedsheets and rugs, where they can breed and grow at an astonishing rate if not kept in check.

Bacteria can grow and divide every 20 minutes, which means that one single bacterium can turn into 10 million in just 24 hours. And viruses can live for days - or even weeks - on surfaces that are not regularly cleaned.

Though experts warn that we should not become too paranoid about the dangers of germs, it is still important to maintain a good basic level of hygiene. The chances of getting something really bad like food poisoning or hepatitis at home are small, but more common infections like colds, flu or even staph can be effectively kept at bay if simple steps are followed.

How clean is clean?
According to Denise Bleak, an infection prevention specialist at Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital, many people's anxieties about germs are often unjustified and can be perpetuated by advertisements for hand sanitizers and other germ-busting products.

"Generally speaking, your house is a safe place," Bleak said. "You are actually more likely to get the flu from someone at the movie theater than from your house, unless someone in your house is sick. But the proliferation of anti-microbial cleaning products feeds into peoples' anxieties and perpetuates the myth that dangerous germs are lurking in every corner of your house."

Though bacteria can be introduced to your house through food preparation, and the dirt and germs that pets and kids track in from the outdoors, Bleak said that regular cleaning and basic hygiene techniques using soap and hot water are usually all that is needed to combat it.

"Overkill is a problem in the U.S., with too much emphasis upon disinfecting a household environment," Bleak said. "If normal organisms are removed from an area [using anti-microbial products], then when someone gets sick there is the possibility of colonization of that area with the sick person's organisms or bacteria, which can build up resistance to the cleaners. A simple damp wiping of surfaces is sufficient in most cases."

The kitchen drain and sponge are the two most germy places in your kitchen, followed by countertops and cutting boards. They can harbor bacteria like salmonella from uncooked chicken, or E-coli from raw meats.

If you don't keep your sponge clean, you will simply transfer bacteria to all other surfaces that you wipe with it, according to the Hygiene Council. Though some experts advocate putting your sponge in a microwave oven to zap germs, Bleak maintains that the best way to clean sponges is the old-fashioned way.

"Boiling water is the gold standard," she said. "Microwaves may not kill bacteria, and will not kill the hard-shelled E-coli and staphylococcus spores. But hot water will. Also, it can be unsafe to put a dry sponge in the microwave, because you might start a fire."

Bleak advocates keeping a tea kettle handy so you can periodically boil water in it, then pour it over the sponge and drain simultaneously. This will kill any bacteria and flush it away.

Hot water and detergent are also all that is required to clean counters and cutting boards, provided you delve into all the crevices and use a little elbow grease. Bleach is OK, but Bleak advises that it only be used occasionally since it is corrosive and creates strong fumes. The correct concentration is one part bleach to 25 parts water, a ratio that most people get wrong, she cautions.

Common sense should also prevail when it comes to food preparation and storage. Don't forget to separate meat from produce, and use separate cutting boards for each. When arranging your refrigerator, put meats near the bottom in case they leak, and make sure leftovers and uncooked items are tightly wrapped.

Contrary to popular belief, the toilet is not necessarily the most dangerous place in the bathroom for germs. Though it does harbor feces-borne microbes, you are unlikely to get sick from these unless you are immuno-compromised or have an open wound.

The bathtub however, is one of the germiest surfaces, according to the Hygiene Council. A recent study found staph bacteria in 26 percent of bathtubs tested, versus six percent of garbage cans tested.

To reduce the likelihood that germs will spread around the bathroom, close the lid of the toilet when you flush. Put your toothbrush in a cabinet or cupboard instead of on the counter, to prevent it from picking up bacteria. And try to clean the toilet bowl twice a week with a disinfectant bowl cleaner.

If you share a bathroom with others, remember not to mingle personal items such as razors or towels, especially if you are sick. Doing so increases the likelihood of picking up germs living on these items.

Make sure your bathroom is well-ventilated with either an extractor fan or a window, and regularly remove mold and mildew from ceilings, walls and the shower enclosure to prevent allergic reactions.

Don't forget to regularly wipe down flush handles, faucets, door handles and light switches, which carry a greater number of germs than most other surfaces due to the frequency with which they are touched.
The viruses that cause diarrhea can survive on a flush handle for up to 14 days.

Lastly, scrub the shower or tub thoroughly once a week with a disinfectant cleaner. This will remove dead skin cells and other grime that accumulates and can spread staph or other infections.

Beds and carpets
Two often-overlooked items are bed linens and carpets. Bed sheets can harbor bacteria and cells that are sloughed off of our skin and can cause acne or other skin conditions. They also hold dust mites and other substances that can contribute to allergies.

Carpets can hold an enormous amount of mold, fungus and bacteria, as well as pests and parasites such as fleas and spiders, which pets can bring in.

Bleak recommends washing linens in hot water once a week, and putting comforters and pillows in the dryer on high for 30 minutes to kill dust mites. Carpets need to be vacuumed once a week to get surface dirt out, and steam-cleaned at least once a year to remove the really deep grease, grime and hair.

"You can hire a professional steam-cleaning service, or even DIY steaming is better than nothing, using one of those machines you can rent at the supermarket," Bleak said. "Shake out carpets that can't be steamed, to loosen dirt and hair. Hair supports all kinds of pests."

If you have pets that live indoors, you may want to buy your own steam-cleaning machine to allow you to deep-clean your carpets more often.

Hand hygiene
The best and most simple technique for keeping germs from spreading around the house is to practice frequent and thorough hand-washing.

Clean skin prevents the spread of germs from hands to light switches, railings, tabletops - and to our own eyes, noses and mouths, which is often how illness begins. "Clean hands can be the most powerful weapon on Earth for defeating infection," says the Hygiene Council's Web site. "It is vital that hands are cleaned correctly and thoroughly."

To be really effective at hand-washing, first wet your hands, then apply bar or liquid soap and rub your hands vigorously together for 20 seconds. Don't forget to clean between your fingers and on the backs of your hands, as well as under your fingernails before rinsing thoroughly.

Some experts say warm or hot water is the best, but Bleak said that cold water is OK if you don't have hot water readily available.

"Cold water is better than nothing," she said. "It's better to wash your hands in cold water than to not wash them at all."

Along with the cleaning practices described above, washing your hands before and after preparing food, after using the toilet and after touching animals or sick people will work wonders to keep your home clean and safe for you and your family.


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