Many people unaware of the bacteria lurking about kitchens, public restrooms

by Laura Powledge

News Reporter

"More than half of all food contamination happens in the kitchen," said Dr. Chuck Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona. "It may be safer to eat out than to eat at home."

Gerba has been researching the microbiology of the kitchen. He has collected dish rags and sponges, scooped goo from sink drains and cultured bugs off kitchen counters.

"Those who are afraid of germs," said Gerba, "just might be justified."

A kitchen sponge is likely to be full of nasty bacteria, he said. He also said every time someone wipes a surface, they probably smear million of germs on it, and bacteria grow very well in sponges.

"You think you are cleaning, but you're actually spreading the bacteria," Gerba said.

His research indicates that one out of four kitchen sponges contains salmonella, a bacteria that causes food poisoning; typhoid; and other diseases.

Because poultry carries the salmonella bacteria, Gerba said, people should use a different cutting board for preparing vegetables than the one they used to prepare chicken.

Gerba also tested public res-trooms for bacterial contamination. He found that women's restrooms contain twice as many microbes as men's restrooms.

"Most bacteria was found on the floor, the bottom of the toilet and on the sink tap," he said. "Every time you turn off the water or pull open the door to leave in a public restroom, you may contaminate your nice, clean hands."

After people wash their hands, they should use paper towels to turn off the faucet and to open the door, Gerba said. "Only 53 percent of people use soap and water, and 30 percent don't wash their hands in public restrooms," he said. "People touch their mouth, nose and face more than 200 times a day with their hands. That's why sanitation is so important."

Gerba said there will eventually be "touchless" public restrooms, where people will not have to touch flush handles or sink taps.

But he found more bacteria in kitchens than in bathrooms. He said that is because people use strong disinfectants in their bathrooms, but don't use those same disinfectants in their kitchens.

Debbie Roberts, a UH assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, said graduate students in her Environmental Microbiology class have taken cultures from various locations on campus.

"We found nothing (harmful) growing in the restrooms because they are constantly being cleaned," Roberts said.

Her students did find bacteria growing in garbage cans and soil, but she said the bacteria were normal organisms such as fungi.

Gerba said hospitals and doctors' offices are also hotbeds for pathogens to live. Because hospitals constantly care for the sick, these places are likely to harbor germs. Gerba also said hygiene in some of these places leaves much to be desired.

Debbie Benjamin, a research nurse at the Shriners' Burn Institute in Galveston, said doctors and nurses are supposed to wash their hands before and after coming into contact with each patient, and also between procedures on a patient's different body parts.

However, this does not always happen, she said.

"Recent research shows that doctors wash their hands 31 percent of the time, and nurses wash their hands 50 percent of the time," Benjamin said. "We know that we are supposed to do it; but we sometimes don't do it."

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