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A challenge: Talk to a professor of microbiology about how clean or dirty the average home may be, and count how many times he throws out the phrase “traces of fecal matter.” Sufficiently disgusted yet? Wait until you hear more from Charles Gerba, Ph. D., Professor of Microbiology & Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona College of Public Health, and cleaning expert extraordinaire Jolie Kerr. We asked them to share their vast expertise about the world of germs, then promptly set off to buy industrial-sized vats of every cleaning agent ever invented. Read on, and you’ll want to thank the person who brought bleach spray bottles and sanitizing wipes into existence.
Area: Kitchen Sink
The food particles you rinse off dishes combined with a wet environment equals a breeding ground for bacteria, and if you thaw frozen meat or chicken in there, you’re also looking at the possibility of salmonella or E. coli. Gerba says to roll up your sleeves and disinfect once a day, and make sure to get the faucet and under the lip of the sink.
Area: Tea Kettle
Who knew? The slimy film that develops inside the teapot is actually known as “scale,” and is caused by a buildup of mineral deposits from hard water. It won’t make you sick, because boiling water kills any germs present, but that rooibos blend is certainly much tastier without it. Kerr’s easy fix is to toss in a handful of uncooked rice, add water and bring to a boil; the grains will slough off that scale. She also says you can use white vinegar as a cleaner, and make sure you don’t leave water sitting in there between uses.
Leaky packages of thawing meat. Bunches of rotting veggies. Yep, the fridge has potential to be the most disgusting spot in the kitchen, but it doesn’t have to be. Gerba suggests always using the bottom shelf as the thawing spot, to contain possible drips and spills. Kerr says that since there’s a good chance for mold to grow, make sure to immediately toss produce that’s gone bad, and take the five minutes necessary to do a thorough cleanup (unless you want leftover bacteria to cause what she politely calls “gastrointestinal issues.” That’s vomit and diarrhea to those with less tact). She likes to use white vinegar or plain old dish soap and water to disinfect, since using harsh chemicals where food is stored isn’t the best idea. Spills need to be cleaned up immediately, and try to get in the habit of doing a disinfecting wipe-down once a month. Those few minutes of annoying housework will actually make a difference.
Area: Dishwasher and Washing Machine
Yes, they sometimes produce a funky smell, but Gerba says that there’s no need to worry. The high temperature inside these machines totally kill any harmful germs. His one caveat is if you have children who may accidentally leave traces of fecal matter (told you!) in their undies; a bit of bleach in an empty washing machine will take care of the situation.
Area: Sponge or Scrub Brush
First of all, if the thing is falling apart, just buy a new one already! Gerba says there’s a possibility of lurking E. coli, which is not what you want on a cleaning tool. It’s possible for the bacteria to get passed on to your dishes and even your food, but there are easy ways to solve the problem. Gerba suggests putting the scrub brush in the dishwasher, and Kerr says to wet the sponge and microwave it for two minutes to kill any germs. Do it every few days, but if your tools start to look ratty, replace them.
Area: Ceiling Fan
Turning on the fan and seeing a tornado of dust drifting down is pretty skeevy, but is basically no big deal unless someone in your home has asthma or severe allergies. Kerr earns some serious Martha Stewart points with this genius cleaning method: Spray Endust or Pledge or whatever you like into an old pillowcase and pull the whole thing over each fan blade, so the dust stays inside instead of flying everywhere. Love it.
Area: Cutting Board
It’s not a conspiracy from cutting board manufacturers to get your cash. You really do need separate ones for meat, produce, etc. According to Gerba, those suckers may be among the dirtiest things in your home, so please, assign different ones for specific uses, and don’t just rinse them off. Get in there with the disinfecting spray or throw them in the dishwasher after using them. Really.
Area: Computer Keyboard and Remote Control
So they’re likely not the most pristine and sparkly items you own, but if you’re a good little handwasher (when you first walk in the door, after cooking and using the bathroom, obvs) then there shouldn’t be an issue, according to Gerba. He says if you have little kids (who are known germ factories) and/or if someone in your home is sick, though, give everything a wipe with a sanitizing cloth.
Area: Welcome Mat
You don’t even want to think about the plethora of yucky things you might have stepped in today (here’s another example of where Gerba employed the “traces of fecal matter” loveliness), which is why this is a hotbed of dangerous disgustingness. He says it’s a good idea to invest in an antimicrobial option, and don’t be afraid to clean this area with regularity. He’s also an advocate for the no-shoes-allowed-inside lifestyle, which is just common sense as far as we’re concerned.
Area: Peeing in the Shower
Eh, it’s all going down the drain anyway, so pee away (shower only, not bath, it goes without saying), in Kerr’s expert view. And while science debunked the myth that pee is 100 percent sterile, she brings up an interesting point, that urine is the least dangerous of any body fluid, so while it’s decidedly gross to think about coming in contact with the stuff, it’s certainly preferable to blood, mucous and other possibilities.
Hands are dirty, germy things. Fact. No one washes theirs as often as they should, so everything you and everyone else touches is crawling with yuckiness. The only choice is to establish a faithful and thorough cleaning routine, and add scrubbing the doorknobs to your list of chores. Gerba says that Clorox or Lysol wipes are perfect for the task; do it at least once a week and let the area dry on its own to make sure all organisms are destroyed.
Area: Air Conditioner and Vacuum Filter
With the exception of asthma and allergy complications, these items shouldn’t pose much of a problem. Just take care when you’re emptying the vacuum, since you don’t want the debris you just sucked up to get thrown everywhere (for example, don’t do this in the kitchen, where the dust can get onto food and prep areas) and wash your hands afterwards. Kerr says to rinse AC filters in water and make sure they’re completely dry before replacing to avoid the chance of mold growth. She says you can wash plastic or foam removable vacuum filters with soap and water (also dry well before putting back), or if the filter is paper you can bang it on the side of a trashcan to knock off debris.
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