Some germs can be introduced by you when cooking. Do you wash your hands when you get home and before preparing food? When was the last time you cleaned your phone – especially important if you use it to read recipes? Do you know if your tea towels and tea towels are clean?
Norovirus, which causes vomiting in the winter, is the most common type of food poisoning. But other bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites – including campylobacter and salmonella – also make us sick. You may have as many questions about germs as there are bacteria on your cutting board (more on that later). So here we’re going to explore the many ways germs can get into your mouth, with the help of Hygiene Doctor Dr. Lisa Ackerley.
To read especially on BBC Africa:
There are thousands of germs on your hands
Many infectious diseases are transmitted by touch. Since your hands would harbor around 3,000 bacteria of over 150 species at any one time (most of which are harmless), imagine how many germs you can introduce into your kitchen if you cook without washing them. To make matters worse, germs spread from your mouth and nose onto your hands.
Washing your hands the right way gets rid of these pathogens. Washing your hands with water alone reduces bacteria levels by 23%, but washing your hands with soap and water can reduce the rate to 8%, according to one study. However, you are not killing pathogens, you are simply eliminating them. That is why it does not matter whether the water is hot or cold. This is also why you need to clean your sink!
Dr Ackerley says: “When you get home, you wash your hands. When you get to work, you wash your hands. You don’t know what you picked up on the way. Handwashing is more important in key moments.”
One in six smartphones is contaminated with poo
Your phone probably accompanies you everywhere, even to the bathroom. According to a study commissioned by the UK Global Handwashing Coalition, faecal bacteria are found on one in six smartphones, giving a whole new meaning to the term ‘pig talk’. Around 57% of Britons use their phone in the toilet, YouGov reveals. No wonder so many phones are covered in poo germs.
These types of bacteria can survive on hands and surfaces for hours, especially when the surface is warm and out of direct sunlight, like a warm phone in your pocket. From there, germs can be picked up by other people or transferred to objects such as food or door or pot handles.
“If you’ve used your phone a lot with dirty hands, you should wipe it down and wash your hands before you start cooking,” says Dr. Ackerley. She also warns against spreading bacteria from food to the phone: “If you’ve touched raw meat, wash your hands before touching your phone.”
60% of dish towels are contaminated withE. coli
While 60% of tea towels are contaminated with e. coli, according to a study commissioned by the World Hygiene Council, and that other kitchen towels are often also loaded with germs, what can you do to reduce the spread of germs? “A lot of people use dishcloths indiscriminately. They’re probably the dirtiest item in the kitchen. You pick up bacteria as you clean, and there comes a time when you actually soil the surface,” says Dr. Ackerley.
Here are some tips for cleaning cloths:
- Use separate cloths for dishes, floor, hand drying and other surfaces.
- Regularly wash your linen at a temperature above 60°C (ideally above 80°C).
- If your machine is not equipped with a water washing system, put your dishcloths in a large saucepan with a little detergent and bring to the boil.
Bathroom faucets are cleaner than kitchen tables
A 2011 study found that 32% of kitchen worktops tested positive for coliform bacteria (a family of bacteria including salmonella and E. coli and an indicator of potential fecal contamination). In the same study, only 9% of bathroom faucet handles tested positive. Organisms can survive from a few hours to several days, depending on their nature and the surface on which they are found.
But should we all reach out for the antibacterial spray?
In 2018, the BBC Trust series Me I’m a Doctor found that swabs from a family’s kitchen table, taken just 1 hour after thorough cleaning with antibacterial wipes, showed evidence of bacterial growth and of mushrooms. After 12 hours, the growth of bacteria and fungi was spectacular.
In a BBC article, Dr Michael Mosley explains: “If you use antibacterial products in the hope of keeping germs at bay, you risk wasting your time and money. Not only will they regrow, quickly, but the vast majority of germs that live in our homes are harmless, and some are even important for the maintenance of good health.”
Still, Dr. Ackerley believes it’s important to use an antibacterial cleaner on work surfaces at key times, such as after preparing raw meat or fish. “You have to disinfect the surfaces that are contaminated so as not to leave a small gift for someone who uses the kitchen afterwards.”
There are more bacteria on your cutting board than on your toilet seat
“Usually there are about 200 times more fecal bacteria on an average cutting board than on a toilet seat,” Dr Chuck Gerba, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, told the BBC. They do not necessarily come in contact with feces, but rather with raw meat.
When it comes to washing kitchen equipment that comes into contact with meat, “the dishwasher is best,” says Dr. Ackerley. If you don’t have access to them, there are two ways to sanitize a cutting board: with chemicals or with heat.
To wash a cutting board, place it in the sink and spray it with an antibacterial chemical, then leave it there for a few minutes before washing it. You can also gently pour boiling water over the board to sterilize bacteria. If you scrub a board without sterilizing it first, you risk contaminating your cloth or brush.
It is best to have a cutting board and a knife for meat and fish and another for everything else.
Is your sink making you sick?
There could be “millions of bacteria in the drains, but it’s how they enter a person’s body and cause disease” that is the main problem, according to Dr Ackerley.
We often wash our hands in the kitchen sink, but “by doing that you can dirty the sink,” she says. Bacteria are carried into the sink and the drain. This phenomenon, associated with the washing of contaminated objects such as knives and cutting boards used for raw meat, can be a cause for concern. “If you then fill the sink with water and wash a lettuce, you risk contaminating your lettuce,” says Dr. Ackerley. The same goes for plates and cups.
So what can you do to minimize the risk of contamination in your sink? Disinfect it from time to time, preferably with an antibacterial cleaner, and wash the vegetables under running water rather than filling the sink.
Are there any e. coli in your refrigerator?
The main purpose of a refrigerator is to slow the growth of bacteria and extend the life of food. However, once the bacteria has grown and is on a surface, Dr. Ackerley says “E. coli have been found to live in refrigerators for weeks.”
More than 40% of households failed tests for bacteria and mold buildup inside refrigerators in a 2010 Home Hygiene Study, which tested 180 households in different countries , including the United Kingdom.
“You should disinfect all surfaces that could be contaminated,” says Dr. Ackerley.
The 3 second rule?
We’ve all heard it, and we’re probably all guilty of following it. But is it really okay to eat food off the floor if it’s only been there for three seconds?
“If it’s meant to be peeled or cooked, I wouldn’t mind too much, but if it’s meant to be eaten as is, then no, don’t take the risk. So if you drop an apple unpeeled dirt on the floor, it doesn’t really matter. But if you drop a sandwich, you don’t know what it landed in; no matter how long it’s been on the floor, it could be contaminated.”
3 good tips
The good news is that you don’t have to spend all your time cleaning up and worrying about germs in the kitchen. Good hygiene boils down to:
- The key moments of cleanliness, such as washing hands in the right way and at the right time.
- Targeted cleaning of contaminated areas, for example after the preparation of raw chicken.
- Preparing cleaning materials, such as separate clean rags for different tasks in the kitchen.
It is also advisable to avoid eating food that has been on the floor!
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