You may be unaware of the potential health dangers lurking in your abode—from critters in the kitchen to bugs in the bedroom. Here’s what you need to know and what to do. 1. Your kitchen sponge: Maybe you’ve heard about the germs on your kitchen sponge (gross news flash—there may be as many as 20 million microbes on it right now). But here’s the deal: Your method for “cleaning” that sponge may be leaving it loaded with potentially hazardous bacteria that can make you ill. Researchers at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service found that some common cleaning methods for sponges—soaking them in a bleach solution, lemon juice or water—did not eradicate the germs. What to do: The best ways to clean a dirty sponge, they say, are in the microwave (on high for one minute) and in the dishwasher, which will kill 99.9 percent of all germs.
2. Your bed: Have you been on a trip recently? If so, you may have brought home some hitchhikers—of the creepy-crawly variety. Bedbugs, tiny bloodthirsty insects, are hosts to organisms that cause hepatitis B and Chagas disease, say health experts. But the real problem seems to be the infections and allergic reactions that can sometimes result from bedbug bites.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, bedbugs are on the rise and becoming an increasing health problem. The insects, which hide in the crevices of mattresses and bedding, are showing up everywhere, from hostels to the swankiest hotels, and they often find their way into people’s luggage, transporting themselves to unsuspecting homes.
What to do: If you’ve done some traveling recently, and especially if you’ve noticed any mysterious bug bites, wash everything in your luggage and consider scrubbing your suitcase with a stiff brush before giving it a good vacuuming.
3. Your laptop: You’re the only one who uses it, so how dirty can it be? In a word: filthy. A study by researchers at the University of North Carolina Health Care System found that keyboards were loaded with germs.
Even more disgusting, the average public toilet bowl contains 41 germs per square inch. The average personal keyboard? Some 21,000 germs per square inch. “Toilet bowls get cleaned,” says Philip M. Tierno Jr., Ph.D., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University Langone Medical Center, “but keyboards rarely do.”
What to do: Tierno says the best way to keep your laptop or computer’s keyboard clean is to gently wipe it down daily with disinfecting wipes.
4. Your shower curtain: According to research by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, shower curtains and liners made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) may be harmful to your health.
Their study suggests that PVC releases potentially harmful chemicals into your bathroom. While there is still some debate among health experts about how much of these chemicals could be deemed harmful, many believe that limiting your exposure to chemicals, wherever possible, makes sense.
What to do: Check your shower curtain’s label to see if it’s made of vinyl or PVC. While not all manufacturers disclose this information, some retailers, like Ikea, have banned PVC shower curtains altogether, and Target has promised to phase out the material in its shower-curtain products in the months ahead.
5. Your laundry: Nobody thinks of the washing machine as a germ magnet—that’s where clothes get clean, right? Not if you’re using a public machine, and especially if that machine uses water that’s not hot enough, says Tierno.
Here’s why: Lower temperatures can encourage the spread of germs. Researchers at the University of Arizona found that intestinal viruses such as hepatitis A can be easily transferred from underwear to other garments during the washing process. Even worse, some germs can lurk in public washing machines and find their way to your clothes.
What to do: Wash your underwear and towels separately, using bleach if possible, and wash all towels in water that’s at least 155 degrees, which will kill most germs. Not sure if your apartment’s water temperature is hot enough? Talk to the building manager.
6. Your doorknob: Think of the people who have touched your front doorknob in the past 48 hours: the UPS man, a neighbor, a solicitor, your friends—it’s easy to lose count. Now think of all the places they’ve been—the subway, public restrooms, grocery stores. Those germs are all on your doorknob right now, says Tierno.
Most people let their guard down when it comes to their own door handles, he says, but we shouldn’t: “Viruses can survive for days on doorknobs, and you can easily get cross contamination from them,” he says.
What to do
Make a habit of wiping down your doorknob frequently with sanitizing wipes or sprays. Have a copper doorknob? You may be in luck. Researchers in England found that copper door handles had 95 percent fewer microorganisms on them compared with other doorknobs. Scientists believe that many germs, including MRSA, may not be able to survive on copper.
7. Your salt and pepper shakers: When’s the last time you cleaned your salt and pepper shakers? Exactly. These unassuming little items get touched in all parts of the meal-prep process. Example: You give your sauce a dash of salt after touching raw chicken (oops) and then later set the shaker on the table.
What to do
Nobody thinks of cleaning their salt and pepper shakers, says Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., assistant professor and co-director Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons College, but to avoid cross-contamination and food poisoning, you should. “Best to wipe them with an EPA-registered disinfectant,” she says. “But better still, always wash your hands after handling raw foods and before touching anything else.”
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