People cross-contaminate all the time in the kitchen and never realize it. If they're preparing chicken and reach into the drawer for a fork or knife, they've gotten chicken germs on the drawer's handle and on the utensils inside the drawer.— Jo Dickerson, author of the blog "Poop on a Hot Tin Slide"
Even a seemingly spotless kitchen might be teeming with bacteria and germs, often in places you would never even imagine them to be. These microbes spread easily, making their way from cutting boards, drawer knobs and countertops to your eating utensils, food and ultimately your digestive system, where they can make you sick.
Microbes cannot be seen with the naked eye, of course, so you might sometimes wonder if you have actually disinfected your kitchen or merely spread the germs around. There's no need to fret: Experts say that with a little awareness and preparation, you can keep your kitchen and its contents bacteria-free.
The Refrigerator Door Handle
The microbes that live on chicken, pork and beef can almost always be found on a refrigerator door handle, according to Dr. Eric E. Schadt, chairman of the department of genetics and genomics sciences at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and chief scientific officer of Pacific Biosciences.
Germ blogger Jo Dickerson agrees, saying cross-contamination is the biggest problem in the kitchen.
Dickerson, who — in the blog "Poop on a Hot Tin Slide" — writes about her germ-focused Expression of obsessive compulsive disorder "and various other nasty phobias," said, "People probably cross-contaminate all the time in the kitchen and never realize it."
"For example," she says, "if they're preparing chicken and reach into the drawer for a fork or knife, they've gotten chicken germs on the drawer's handle and then on the utensils inside the drawer too."
Hand washing is the quickest and simplest way to prevent this contamination, says Dr. Ellen Neuhaus, director for infectious diseases for the Eastern Connecticut Health Network in Vernon, Connecticut. The problem, she says, is that many people do not know how to wash their hands correctly.
"The trick to doing proper hand hygiene is to use soap and water for 15 seconds and to shut off the faucet with a paper towel or the elbow," Neuhaus explains. "Shutting it off with the hands only recontaminates the hands with the very organisms that were on them when they opened the water faucet."
While clean water is essential in the preparation of food, it is often overlooked in developed nations, where pure, untainted water is taken for granted. But certain situations call for caution.
If you use well water, for example, you should be aware that it is susceptible to ground toxins and septic seepage, particularly in times of heavy rain. Municipal water may be tainted as a result of a broken water main or significant flooding. In either case, have your water professionally tested before using it in your food, and when in doubt, use bottled water or a filtration system.
"Remember, anything you use in the preparation of your food will potentially leave particles of 'whatever' on your food," says former bakery employee chef Moira Parker of Vancouver, British Columbia. "When cooking with water, the water gets into your food, and anything in the water would get into your food as well."
The Dish Towels
People usually think of their dish towels as germ-free since they typically dry only their freshly washed hands and dishes on the cloths. But after the dishes have been wiped dry, the towels remain wet. That moisture plus the heat in the kitchen makes them prime breeding ground for microbes.
Parker advises changing dish towels frequently and washing them in bleach.
In her own home, she has a separate set of decorative towels that she brings out only when company visits. Once her guests leave, Parker puts the decorative towels away and uses ordinary ones for the dish drying.
"It's a great idea to have a different set for every day of the week," she says. "I have plain ugly ones. I don't care about whether they get stained or ripped."
Just because you use your sponge for cleaning doesn't mean it's clean. In fact, Dickerson says, sponges are among the filthiest items in the kitchen.
"One big mistake I often see is people wiping out the kitchen sink and then using the same sponge to wipe the counters," she says. "The kitchen sink is just about the dirtiest place in your entire house, and it is positively teeming with dangerous bacteria and germs -- E. coli and salmonella in particular. You do not want to wipe out your sink and then spread those germs to any other surface, especially your countertops where you prepare food."
The easiest solution is to regularly buy new sponges. They're not expensive. But if you can't manage that, clean them with heat, says Angela Mariani, adjunct biology professor at the University of Maryland.
"Microwave your sponge," Mariani advises. "High heat will kill off the majority of microbes living there."
The Sink Drain
Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not there, and the inside of sink drains are often overlooked by homemakers who fall victim to the "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. But the dark recesses of your sink are perfect breeding grounds for bacteria, mold and mildew.
Given time, these pathogens can creep into your general sink basin and infect any clean dishes you place there after washing. They can also lead to bug infestations. Drain fly maggots develop by feeding on bacteria and organic materials that colonize in unwashed drains. Roaches and ants may be attracted to the warmth, wetness and darkness there, even if there is no bacteria growing.
Parker suggests pouring boiling water down all sink drains on a weekly basis to kill any microbes and other bugs living there. Dickerson says she uses bleach to get rid of the remnants.
"I like to treat my kitchen sink like it's going to kill me," Dickerson jokes. "You don't have to be so crazy about it, but do use common sense -- and a liberal helping of bleach."
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