Germs in hiding

These home invaders are everywhere, but simple, regular steps can banish them.


It's official: Nobody's floor is so clean you can eat off of it.

The five-second rule - the idea that dropped food is safe to eat if it is picked up within five seconds - is kaput.

You wouldn't eat a cookie that dropped in dog waste, says New York University microbiologist Philip Tierno Jr., so why eat one that fell on your kitchen floor, where your family tracks in who knows what?

Even if your home is in apple-pie order, germs such as salmonella and E. coli could hide out on your floor, your TV remote, or your toothbrush. If you've ever fretted that a bogeyman or a home invader would breach your peaceful home, think smaller. Much smaller.

Germs lurk around the house, from the floor tiles to the bathtub. What is the No. 1 germiest spot in your home? It's not what you expect.

The germiest place, bar none, is the kitchen sink.

"The sink is actually dirtier than the toilet bowl because at least the toilet gets flushed and cleaned," Tierno says.

Everything, including the kitchen sink, can be germy, but don't fret. Ick factor aside, most germs are beneficial. Without them we'd have no antibiotics, our bread wouldn't rise, and the food in our intestines wouldn't break down.

True, some germs are up to no good, but a few simple steps repeated on a regular basis can wipe them out. It just takes a little elbow grease and a few cents' worth of cleaners your grandmother probably used, says Tierno, author of The Secret Life of Germs.

The kitchen sink. Your sink is home to biofilms - invisible bacterial neighborhoods left over from rinsing refuse off your mop and handling raw meat.

Don't place food directly in your sink sans colander or cutting board. "You don't want your salad leaves to be replete with some chicken blood that stays in your sink and can cause salmonella," Tierno says.

"People do a very good job of wiping down their countertops and their stoves and using separate cutting boards, one for vegetables and one for meat," says Cindy Hoegg, associate director of infection prevention at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, "but then all the dirty dishes and cutting boards get rinsed in the sink and go into the dishwasher, and who really cleans out the sink? Especially if you've got a garbage disposal, you've got to clean the sink."

The cleanup: Take a stiff brush and some dish soap and scrub the surface and the drain area weekly, Tierno says. Then pour a small amount of bleach into a full sink to sanitize the surface.

For eye safety and to protect your lungs from the caustic fumes, stand back from the sink when you pour the bleach, Hoegg says.

Tip: When sanitizing any surface, let the bleach sit for five to 10 minutes. Hoegg says bleach needs some contact time to work thoroughly. Let the surfaces air-dry.

The TV remote. Remote controls aren't just for living-room couch potatoes now; cooks reach for them when they're washing a turkey cavity while watching the Food Network's Alton Brown on the kitchen mini-TV.

"If you're home sick with a cold, what do you do?" Hoegg says. "You sit there and channel-surf all day with the remote. Mom goes off to work and says, 'Here's the remote. Here's your tissues.' "

The cleanup: Cleanse all your remotes thoroughly but gingerly with an antibacterial wipe, being careful not to allow any liquid to seep inside.

The kitchen table. When the family gathers around the kitchen table to share a meal, they also share their germs and skin cells. Add to this the dirt from purses or backpacks that may have been on the floor of a public bathroom hours earlier.

The cleanup: Wash the table with soap and water and disinfect it with a 1-to-20 bleach-to-water mixture.

The washing machine. Germs such as E. coli can survive even warm-water washing and drying on high heat, Tierno says.

The cleanup: Use a detergent with a sanitizing agent or or color-safe bleach to clean undergarments, the clothes most likely to harbor bacteria. If shrinkage isn't a problem, Tierno recommends washing underwear in hot water. To keep the washer tub sanitized, Hoegg recommends occasionally running a short cycle with nothing but a 1-to-20 bleach-to-water mix inside. Wash your hands after handling wet laundry.

Dishrags, sponges and cutting boards. One wet dishrag can contain millions of bacteria. Plastic and wooden cutting boards harbor bacteria too.

The cleanup: Plastic and wooden cutting boards can be sanitized by scrubbing them with soap and water and using a 1-to-20 bleach-to-water solution, Hoegg says. If there are deep knife fissures where bacteria can hide, it's best to sand the surface periodically, Tierno says.

Plastic boards can also be placed in the dishwasher.

Sponges can be tossed in the dishwasher, washed in the washing machine with bleach, or placed in a small bowl with water and microwaved for about a minute after every meal preparation. Dishcloths should be washed with soap and water or bleach and water, rinsed clean, and dried.

Tip: Never use bleach full strength. Diluting allows the chlorine molecules in the bleach to move around and do their job. Besides, experts say using full-strength bleach is extremely hazardous to your lungs.

The bathroom. Flushing the toilet with the lid open can send small drops of fecal matter up to 20 feet through the air, Tierno says. Those germs can thrive in wet places such as toothbrushes and bath sponges.

The cleanup: First, put the seat down before flushing the toilet.

Tierno suggests that toothbrushes should be rinsed clean and air-dried in a rack. The protective caps that some toothbrushes come with can trap germs and moisture. If you put the toilet seat down but other family members don't, you might want to store your toothbrushes upright in a glass in another area.

Thoroughly rinse and air-dry sponges and loofahs.

The tub bottom should be scrubbed weekly because biofilms form there, too.

Your bath towel. A person typically sheds 1.5 million dead skin cells an hour, so skin cells and bacteria collect on bath towels.

The cleanup: If you reuse your bathroom towel, always air-dry it; never fold it for reuse. Replace it with a clean one after two or three uses. Don't pile the entire family's towels on one hook, creating a warm, wet place where germs can grow.

Your bed. We may spend eight hours a day in the bedroom, but we never lose a wink over dust mites, microscopic creatures that live in mattresses, bedding, curtains, and upholstered furniture and feed on flaked-off skin. About three-quarters of American homes have detectable levels of dust mites, says Darryl C. Zeldin of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The cleanup: Wash your bedding in hot water weekly. Dust all surfaces. Damp-mop the floor. Clean the carpet with a vacuum with an allergen filter. Buy an allergen cover for your mattress, box springs, and pillow - a cover that goes all the way around the item and zips closed. They are available in some stores and online. Frequent vacuuming of curtains and upholstery works well, Zeldin says. Professional dry-steam cleaning using hot air can be effective, he says, but water-extraction cleaning can worsen dust-mite infestations.

Other places you constantly touch. If you touch your refrigerator handle after making meatballs, bacteria could lurk there. Carol Weingarten of Villanova University's nursing department says anything that is constantly touched should be wiped clean - keys, door knobs, telephones, computer keyboards, cabinet pulls, refrigerator handles, light switches, toilet handles, and faucets.

The cleanup: Wipe with an antiseptic wipe or a soapy cloth, but be careful not to allow any moisture to seep inside electronic gear.

The most important factor in keeping a clean house is frequent hand-washing, the experts say.

Wash your hands for about the length of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday" twice, Tierno says. Be certain to rub the soap under running water to create some friction and clean under your nails and in the webs of your fingers, Hoegg says.