Germs are massing for attack Kitchen: Cleaning time is down, and bacteria counts are up - in the sink and on cutting boards and refrigerator handles.

November 15, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Ready or not, the entertainment season is upon you. The big Thanksgiving feast is less than two weeks away, and that begins more than a month of dinners and parties. On your planning checklist, you might add this: Try not to accidentally kill your guests.

Because we're not cleaning properly, kitchen sinks, cutting boards and refrigerator handles are crawling with more germs, including fecal bacteria, than toilet seats or bathroom floors.

According to this month's American Demographics magazine, people are spending much less time housekeeping than they used to; women, the primary cleaners, were down to 15 hours a week in 1995, vs. 27 hours in 1965. And sales of cleaning products dropped 6 percent from 1992 to 1996.

"You'd be better off eating a carrot stick that fell in your toilet than one that fell in your sink," says Charles Gerba, the University of Arizona microbiologist whose study of germ levels in 15 well-tended homes shocked the country this summer. "Your dog is right."

Food poisoning kills 9,000 Americans a year and sends 30 million to 80 million more rushing to doctors and bathrooms with fevers and stomach cramps. Some cases lead to miscarriage, arthritis and kidney failure. And 80 percent of food poisoning doesn't happen in restaurants, experts say. It's homemade.

Gerba reminds us that we expect germs in the bathroom and routinely disinfect them. Kitchens don't get the same treatment. They should.

Today's food is more likely to carry an array of dangerous bacteria from the global marketplace into our kitchens aboard raw meat, vegetables and poultry. "This is not your mother's kitchen anymore," says Alan Levy, a Food and Drug Administration food safety expert. "The world's changing, but our kitchen practices are not."

The Germ Odds

How many bacteria does it take to make people sick?

It depends on the bacteria. For some, it can take as few as 10 bacteria to get sick; for others, it can be millions.

And millions are what Charles Gerba, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, found this summer in the first scientific study of germs in homes; it is being published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology this fall. Some counts he found:

* Sponges and dishcloths: 7 billion bacteria per average-size sponge.

* Kitchen faucet handles: 229,000 per square inch.

* Cutting boards: 62,000 per square inch.

The good news: Microbes in the home are reduced by 99 percent when people start cleaning all hard surfaces with bleach-based products that clean and disinfect.

Get your kitchen ready

Before you bring in the Thanksgiving turkey to cook, do this:

* Clean all your kitchen surfaces. Soap and warm water are not enough. Use a cleanser with "disinfectant" on the label; it's a term registered with the Environmental Protection Agency. Or use three-quarters of a cup of bleach in a gallon of hot water.

* Clean your sink and drain and your sponges by filling the sink with hot water and bleach.

* Clean your cutting board with disinfecting cleanser or diluted bleach after each use, and use different boards for meat and vegetables. (Twenty-five percent of people don't wash cutting boards after chopping raw meat or chicken, an FDA survey shows.)

* Wash your dishcloths often - with disinfectant, diluted bleach or in hot water in the washing machine - and let them dry out.

* High-touch zones, such as handles, should be disinfected about three times a week. (Toilets, showers, tubs and kitchen and bathroom floors need it once a week.)

* Always wash your hands before preparing food or eating. Twenty-five percent don't. And washing means scrubbing. With

soap. For 20 seconds.

* Final tip: The new "antibacterial" products are mostly a waste of money, experts say.

Basic hygiene is cheaper and more effective.

Pub Date: 11/15/98

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