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Kitchen a haven for germs: Study

An international study has found that kitchen sinks have more germs than bathroom sinks.

If you want to eat dinner from a clean surface, you might try your bathroom.

A study released Wednesday found that kitchen sinks have more germs than bathroom sinks. The study also found that three-quarters of kitchen cloths and sponges are heavily contaminated with harmful bacteria, meaning proper cleanup can be difficult.

The study was sponsored by the makers of the cleaning product Lysol, but the company did not design the study. Samples were taken by independent environmental scientists in 20 homes with children in each of seven regions, including the U.K., the U.S., Germany, Africa, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and India.

Kitchen cleaning tips

Microwave: Dean Cliver, a professor of food safety at the University of California, has carried out numerous studies on the cleaning properties of microwaves. A one-minute high-powered blast can keep your sponges and dish cloths sterile. However, it doesn't work for natural sea sponges.

Hands: Cliver says he has never seen convincing evidence that hot water works better than cold water for washing your hands.

Poultry: Chicken is so notorious for spreading salmonella and other harmful bacteria that the USDA is no longer recommending that you rinse it in the kitchen sink. "The water splashes and its spreads problems to other parts of the kitchen that won't be as easy to get to," says Cliver. Eighty per cent of chicken carry potentially harmful bacteria, and any surface that comes in contact with it should be washed thoroughly, said Elizabeth Scott of the Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Boston.

Wipes: Scott recommends that food spills and juice should be wiped up with a paper towel and dumped. That avoids contact with a bacteria-infected sponge or dish cloth where the bacteria will feed on the food and drink supplied.

Cleaners:Scott believes in targeted hygiene. "We should use discretion when spraying chemicals, even if they are FDA-approved and non-toxic," she said. "There's not much point in spraying your windows with anti-bacteria spray."

Internationally, 90 per cent of kitchen cloths, 46 per cent of kitchen sinks, 38 per cent of bathroom sinks and 14 per cent of children's toys failed the test, meaning they had a total bacteria count of more than 100,000 per square centimetre.

The bacteria included E. coli and salmonella, which were probably carried in by food, small children or pets, researchers said. They can cause diarrhea or infections with flu-like symptoms that are especially dangerous to small children, the elderly and pregnant women.

"Bacteria find a happy home in sponges. When you wipe, you take up food and drink and bacteria can feed on that," said Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiology professor at the University of Arizona who was not involved with the research.

John Oxford, who led the study and is a professor of virology at St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, warned that families put great effort into cleaning toilets, but not nearly as much time into keeping their kitchens clean.

"You could eat your dinner in a U.S. toilet, but there is a lack of appreciation that kitchen sinks can be contaminated with fecal organisms, either coming in with fruit and vegetables or from pets and children," he said.

But keeping clean is not impossible. Dean Cliver, a professor of food safety at the University of California, suggests sterilizing sponges with a one-minute high-powered blast in the microwave, washing hands and avoiding rinsing chicken in the sink. 

Or forget sponges entirely — professor Elizabeth Scott of the Simmons Center for Hygiene and Health in Boston recommends cleaning food spills with a paper towel and dumping it.

Ironically, Gerba said his own findings suggest that living like a slob is better than meticulously cleaning the kitchen with a dirty sponge. A study he carried out 10 years ago found that 10 per cent of kitchen sponges contained salmonella. One of his most astounding findings was that bachelors had the cleanest kitchens. They just threw their dishes into the kitchen sink and didn't spread bacteria by wiping surfaces.

Another of Gerba's findings was that your post-flush toilet bowl is indeed cleaner than your kitchen sink.

"That's why your dog drinks from it," he said. "He probably looks at you drinking from the kitchen sink and thinks: 'Humans. That's just so gross."'