Is Your Kitchen Sink Making You Sick?

I was a philosophy major at the University of Oregon. She was studying home economics at Oregon State. We were an unlikely couple.

Me, a bearded philosopher and champion of organic living. She, a nutrition major with a cherub-like freckled face and an eerie resemblance to Betty Crocker.

We didn’t argue often, but when we did the disagreement was invariably about food and cooking. To her, there was no appreciable dietary difference between honey and sugar. To me, refined sugar was lethal.

And despite her fresh knowledge of organic chemistry (gathered over long nights of head-expanding study and a relentless series of lectures by her anti-organic foods professor), I continued to shun processed foods, white flour, and white sugar like they were death in a box.

We were quite the pair, Patte and I.


A lesson in microbiology

“Where,” she asked, “do you say is the most germ-ridden surface in this apartment?” We were at her place in Corvallis, sharing a Thanksgiving meal.

Smelling a trap, I gave it a little thought, then responded with some off-the-wall comment like, “The top of the refrigerator, I suppose.”

“Close,” she smiled, “you guessed the right room.” I leaned closer, wondering where she might be headed. “I took scrapings from every major surface here, then investigated them in the lab at school—and the two places with by far the most germs were … are you ready? … the kitchen sink and the kitchen counter!

I almost fell out of my chair. How could that be?

We were both fastidious about cleaning. Dishes never piled up, they were washed as soon as the table was cleared. I began trying to challenge her data—I mean, what does the Oregon State microbiology lab know about germs anyway? My weak arguments, though, eventually turned to amazement—then to a search for what could be done about the situation. After all, if you can’t trust your kitchen counter, what can you trust?

You can find more germs here than in your average toilet

e ColiI was reminded of that long-ago event recently, when research on a current project led me to a study published in the July 7, 2008 edition of Pediatrics Week, a peer-reviewed medical journal. Here are some of the points discussed there:

  • Almost half of all kitchen sinks tested proved to be dangerously contaminated with bacteria—including potentially deadly E. coli.
  • Kitchen sinks harbor more germs than the bathroom sink, door handles, or chew toys.
  • 75% of (USA) sponges and cleaning cloths used in the kitchen were heavily infected with bacteria. Internationally, that figure reached almost 90%.
  • 80% of Salmonella infections occur at home—not at a restaurant.

Once again, I felt the same indignation I had experienced in Corvallis. The area where food preparation takes place should be the cleanest spot in our homes, not a breeding ground for bacteria. That is especially true when you consider that a colony of germs can double in population every 10 minutes—meaning a few unwanted guests can become millions of intruders before the day is out.

Steps towards kitchen hygiene

What can we do to protect our families and ourselves? I know that most bacteria are not harmful—like you and me, they’re just doing what they need to do to stay alive. Some germs are even beneficial. There are others, though, that can make you sick—or worse—and those creatures have to go. Just like practicing good personal hygiene is helpful in fighting off disease, good kitchen hygiene can prevent the spread of bacterial infections.

The basics are:

  • Whether you use a sponge or a cloth for cleaning, it is important to change it often and to let it get good and dry between uses. Germs need moisture to survive.
  • Use a disinfectant when you clean kitchen surfaces—not just soap and water. Bacteria are living creatures that require special measures. Look for a natural disinfectant, though; the old standby—bleach—can be as dangerous as the germs you are trying to kill.
  • Clean often and clean well. And don’t forget to get down into the drain area. Remember to wipe all kitchen cabinet and appliance handles with your disinfectant solution.
  • Beware of wooden cutting boards and utensils. The crevices can be dens of protection for germs. Scrub them, soak them, and replace them when cracks and soft spots appear.
  • Remember: Germs multiply rapidly. That is why it is important to clean up spills quickly and wipe down surfaces often. A few hours or days of inattention give germs the opportunity to dig in and make your home their home.

Do you wonder why your family is sick so often? Do you often blame upset stomachs on restaurant food? It may be you are infecting your family with germs every time you serve them food. That isn’t a welcome thought, but it could be true.

I didn’t want to hear it either—not when Patte first told me, and not now. But facts are facts. Since they won’t change, we must.

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