Germ warfare: How to win the battle at home

Kya deLongchamps finds that simple cleaning habits can stop the dreaded bacteria and pathogens in their tracks as they march from room to room

SPRING cleaning is generally regarded as fluffing storage, hideous wipedowns (skirting boards — ow!) and possibly a bit of Marie Kondo-style decluttering for some spiritual dessert.

However, clean is clean. Deep cleaning focuses on promoting a really healthy micro-environment in the house — safe surfaces, clean air and a low-allergen burden upstairs and down. Much of the problem is microscopic, unseen and never properly tackled. We are, in fact, our own worst enemies in the serious work of germ warfare.

Late last year, the consumer group Which (UK) conducted a simple swab-based germ testing on a typical two-adult/two-children family home. While the results of their investigations were not too surprising (the legendary dank villainy of the kitchen sponge, for example), they did uncover some deeply uncomfortable truths.

We are obsessed with scrubbing out the bathroom and yet totally missing the well-trodden superhighways for devious bacteria and pathogens moving freely through the house.

The team at Which found evidence of bacteria from faecal matter (Escherichia vulneris, E. coli, Klebsiella oxytoca and Staphylococcus aureas) on more than just the toilet seat.

The kitchen, where we need to be ultra-vigilant, had a serious burden in three key areas. These potentially worrisome organisms were thriving on the handle of the kettle, the lid of the kitchen bin and of course the good old sodden kitchen sponge which had the highest colony count for faecal bacteria and staph.

Shocked? Well, these tiny microbes are the rugged, ancient survivors of the natural world. In most cases external bacteria don’t bother us, and in fact it would be nearly impossible to eradicate healthy and not so healthy bacteria from a living space. Trillions of vital microbes are present throughout our bodies. Still, signs of bathroom activity on the kettle handle? We can do better than that.

Evidence from multiple studies demonstrates how we spread and coax threatening, unruly bacteria to colonise counters. Often this cross-contamination is done unwittingly in our attempts at cleaning and actually protecting ourselves. Do you throw your handbag, which just sat on a café floor, onto the kitchen counter? Stop.

The National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) in the USA is one of the most accredited, independent international groups charged with overseeing public health. If you thought those soapy-smelling Americans were exquisitely efficient super cleaners — think again.

In 2011 the NSF conducted a study, asking 22 US families to swab 30 everyday household items ranging from kitchen surfaces to mobile devices to measure contamination levels of yeast, mould and coli-form. Their “germiest house” study concluded that coliform was present on:

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  • More than 75% of dish sponges/rags (15% had salmonella)
  • 45% of kitchen sinks contained coliform bacteria.
  • 32% of countertops
  • 18% of cutting boards
  • 27% of toothbrush holders
  • 9% of bathroom tap handles
  • 50% of coffee maker reservoirs contained yeast and mould. 9% contained coli-form bacteria
  • The evidence is helpful and so highly specific. The Global Health Council in its 2014 research funded by Reckitt Benckiser, found the handle of the toilet brush to be cleaner that kitchen taps, cloths or counters of 20 UK households.

    In multiple tests worldwide, PCs and other electronic handheld devices stabbed with our filthy digits, were found to be 9000- 20,000 times dirtier than the loo lid. Many carry gram-positive cocci which are linked to the joys of pneumonia. Lovely.

    If all this makes you run screaming for the chemical anti-bacterial arsenal standing to attention under the sink – slow down and form a strategic plan. Keep in mind that the vast majority of bacteria in our homes are benign.

    The problem of the traffic of germs from the bathroom to the kitchen is a relatively easy fix that does not necessarily entail urgent broadcast sprays of triclosan, benzethonium chloride, benzalkonium chloride and chloroxylenol. Aside from these dubious doses, there are multiple, equally effective ways to disrupt the trail and growth of problematic organisms.

    First of all, handwashing. It’s wet/soap/rub/rinse/dry. You can find a full demonstration on how to give your hands a proper wash from the EU’s Safefood here: safefood.eu/Food-safety/Cleaning-the-basics/Handwashing.aspx. Damp hands are a brilliant vehicle for germs to go on a household adventure over every light switch and counter.

    Every time you use the bathroom and every time you enter the kitchen to prepare food or drink — wash and dry your hands. Dry them on a clean towel or fresh paper towel, not on the tea towel. Every time you touch raw food such as meat, poultry, vegetables and eggs, every time you cuddle your pets, every time you do a dirty household chore — wash your hands.

    Damp, overly used cloths are a heaving party for bacteria. They are wet, they are quite warm, they are utterly ideal for swiping millions of devilish bacteria over your work surfaces. Use multiple cloths for the jobs in the kitchen and wash them regularly (every couple of days is not excessive).

    The cloth doing the counters is not the cloth you use to wipe your hands. The tea towel you use for anything is not your hand towel. Paper towels are not Earth-friendly, but they do carry the positive of being clean every time.

    Sponges must be washed and dried thoroughly. Frankly, it’s almost impossible to keep a dense sponge clean even with washes and rinses. They are E. coli’s best friend. If you must use them, make peace with throwing the sponges out every few days — that’s out, in the bin — gone. It is possible to dry sponges in the microwave. A far better idea is to use an arsenal of recyclable cotton or microfibre cloths that can be washed and dried with ease at high temperatures in the machine. Split up your chopping boards between ready-to-eat foods like bread and salad and raw foods — be meticulous.

    We’re not talking about accrued, good acquired immunity, we’re fighting the real baddies that can make you and family sick.

    In the bathroom, we are often super-fussy about the gleam of the porcelain but utterly forget the repeated bacteria strikes to the handle or push control on the toilet. It’s better to close the toilet seat to avoid the revolting prospect of aerosolised faeces or “toilet plume” when flushing. The dreaded plume can reach your toothbrush!

    Putting the seat down involves touching the seat area. Together with hand-washing, disinfect your entire toilet regularly and your handle and seat as often as possible.

    Think about the sequence of touches that follow using the loo. The tap, the towel rail, even the door handle and light switches (little kids don’t wash their hands properly let’s face it). Having determined to change your towels every couple of days, a simple spritz and wipedown with even a dilute solution of white vinegar in water on a clean tear of old cotton cloth can decimate the microbe count clinging to other hot spots.

    The TV remote rarely gets any attention in terms of cleaning. Between shows children will rush a trip to the bathroom and then pounce on the clicker. An anti-bacterial wipe or a barely damp touch of a green cleaning solution once a week will lessen the chances of an infection from sloppy sanitary habits.

    Here’s my favourite natural recipe for natural wipes in a jar: naturesnurtureblog.com/homemade-cleaning-wipes. These safe, germ-murdering wipes are great for door and appliance handles and fronts and the lavender scent is intoxicating — trust me.

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