Germs: Always lurking

Sunday, May 26, 2019

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THE average household hosts millions of germs, which are tiny organisms that can cause infection and disease.

They are invisible to the human eye, but they are everywhere: In the air, soil and water, and on food, plants and animals. All germs have one thing in common — when they find a home that they like, they set up shop and multiply.

There are different types of germs.

Bacteria

Bacteria are tiny, single-celled organisms that get nutrients from their environments, mostly living beings, including plants, humans and animals. Some bacteria are good for our bodies, for example, those that help to keep the digestive system in working order and to repel harmful bacteria.

Some bacteria are even used to make medicines and antibiotics. But bacteria can also cause trouble, such as urinary tract infections, ear infections or strep throat.

Viruses

Viruses are also a member of a group of organisms called germs. Interestingly, they need to use another cell's structures to reproduce, which means they can't multiply unless they're living inside something else — such as a person, animal or plant.

For example, viruses in infected body fluids left on surfaces like a countertop or toilet seat can live there for a short time, but die unless a live host comes along. Once they've found a ready host, though, viruses spread quickly.

These minute organisms are responsible for some minor sicknesses like colds, common illnesses like the flu, and very serious diseases like smallpox or HIV/AIDS. Remember Chikungunya virus, which assaulted Jamaica some time ago?

Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, but antiviral medicines have been developed against a small, select group of viruses.

Fungi

Another category of germs is fungi, which are plant-like organisms.

A fungus gets nutrition from plants, food, and animals in damp, warm environments. Many fungal infections, such as athlete's foot and yeast infections, are not dangerous in a healthy person. People who have weakened immune systems (from diseases like HIV, diabetes or cancer) though, may develop more serious fungal infections.

You might find disease-causing fungi in a home, especially in areas that are exposed to humidity.

Some hot spots

Germs lurk in just about any part of a house: The bathroom, the kitchen and living areas, but there are some hot spots that could endanger your health.

We touch dozens of surfaces everyday without a second thought. Some are just teeming with germs. Think about even the ticket that the security guard passes to individuals in every single vehicle as they enter offices and plazas — that is definitely germ city.

Most of us might consider the bathroom the most germ-filled place in our homes, but Philip Tierno, a New York University pathologist and self-described microbe hunter, wrote a book called The Secret Life of Germs, which provides us some eye-opening insights.

Surprising as it may be, Tierno says if you're working assiduously to fight germs in the bathroom, you still haven't found the germiest place in the home.

While few things are more “germy” than a toilet seat, given its function in disposal of bodily waste, researchers have discovered that the common toilet seat contains as little as 50 bacteria per square inch.

“It is cleaner to eat from a toilet, compared to the drain,” Tierno says, referring to the kitchen drain. “The kitchen sink drain is the dirtiest area of the house.”

We can agree that the toilet seat's 50 germs is 50 times too many, but consider the following household items, all of which contain far more germs per square inch. The top five dirtiest items in your home include your kitchen sponge, kitchen sink, chopping boards, cell phone, remote controls, each of which harbours more germs than your toilet seat.

Your kitchen sponge, the very thing you use to clean your dishes, may be the filthiest object you have at home. Containing as many as 10 million bacteria per square inch, or nearly 200,000 times more than your toilet seat, your kitchen sponge is a veritable hotel for nearly 362 different species of bacteria. This is really scary when you think of it.

In a study conducted by the National Sanitation Foundation of the USA, researchers found that the kitchen sink had the second highest concentration of micro-organisms in the home.

Cutting boards are another culprit when it comes to harbouring dangerous bacteria. Surfaces you use to chop your food may have bacteria including E coli and Salmonella. Some people opt for plastic chopping boards, since — on the surface — they seem easier to sanitise, but cutting often nicks the plastic, giving bacteria a place to hide.

We take our cellphones pretty much for granted, carrying it into all sorts of environments. You may not have given a second thought to taking your phone with you everywhere you go, from the dinner table to the doctor's office, the bathroom, and unfamiliar environments. It's in and out of your pocket or handbag. You use it with clean or dirty hands. When your phone drops on the ground, you pick it up and move right along. You visit a sick person who may have a contagious disease, and somehow, you think your phone is immune, while you may wear a mask.

Microbiologists often refer to cell phones as Petri dishes as they generate heat, live in the darkness of your pockets and often travel into the bathroom with you.

Even your TV remote control is not safe. It is also covered in bacteria, mould and potentially infection-causing bacteria. Your bed sheets are another haven for germs.

Where do they come from?

So, if we're fighting germs, we really ought to know where they come from. There are three ways that human beings generate germs, says Tierno. The first is the skin. Your biggest organ is a home to hundreds of different kinds of germs, and every day they slough off. The average person sheds roughly half an ounce of dead skin every week, which stays in your sheets and becomes prime feeding material for dust mites.

The fecal matter and other debris they leave behind can lead to some scary effects, exacerbating eczema, seasonal allergies, skin irritations, and more.

The second source of germs comes from your respiratory system, that is, your mouth and nose. So, when you talk, cough, and sneeze, you are letting loose a host of germs into the air.

The third way humans generate germs is found at the opposite end of the body. There are a staggering number of germs in faeces. It's the germs from this source that make the kitchen one of the dirtiest rooms in any house. You may well ask why? Most people tend to wash their hands after using the toilet, so really, the seat or the flushing device is not, strictly speaking, the culprit. It is germs that are carried in unwashed or improperly washed hands after using the toilet.

Germs also enter the house from some of the fertilizers used to grow vegetables, or from foods that are not properly washed, transported and stored.

Fighting germs

Knowing where germs are in your home is one thing; getting rid of them is another. As a rule of thumb, any area of your home with high traffic and surfaces that get touched a lot is where germs are likely to be lurking. Soap and water come high on the list of simple ways to combat germs, as a great deal of germs is transported by dirty hands and objects that we touch and carry around. Cleaning with soap and hot water removes dirt and grime and gets rid of some germs on most surfaces.

Cleaning alone is usually enough for many surfaces. But you may want to disinfect areas where there are a lot of germs. A cleaner-disinfectant is also a wise addition to your kitchen storage area. You can make an inexpensive and effective disinfectant by adding one cup of bleach to one gallon of water.

Here are some tips for reducing the germs in your environment:

• Change your kitchen sponge often, and keep it germ-free by dipping it in a weak bleach solution before using;

• Clean and disinfect countertops, sink faucets and handles, refrigerator handles, and cutting boards. Check the manufacturer's directions for specialty countertops;

• Once a month, pour a solution of one teaspoon bleach and one quart water or white vinegar down the kitchen sink drain to sanitise the drain;

• Adding essential oils to vodka in a spray bottle can remove mould, mildew and musty smells. Vodka is 80 to 100-proof alcohol and is highly antibacterial without any odour. Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants. Tea tree oil, citronella, lemongrass, orange, and Patchouli essential oils have particularly strong bacterial-fighting properties.

• Raw meat and even fresh produce can carry E coli and salmonella, so cutting boards need to be sanitised after each use. Consider having two cutting boards — one for foods safely eaten raw, such as fruits and vegetables, and the second specifically for cutting raw meat, poultry and fish. This helps avoid transferring bacteria.

• Clean your cell phone regularly.

• To keep germs out of your bed, be sure to wash your bed sheets at least once a week.

• Improperly prepared or processed food may also bring bacteria into your home.

Technological Solutions Limited (TSL) works with food processors to minimise the risk to consumers by helping them to adhere to internationally agreed standards for food handling and assisting with the development of sanitation programmes. The company develops food sanitation programmes by gathering evidence from a facility as to actual micro-organisms present (through testing) and can, using this evidence, create a food safe sanitation programme specific to a facility that, if adhered to, will prevent contamination of food products during processing.

TSL's work is also represented in the region by Helen Kennedy, the company's manager, Technical & Consulting Services in the Southern Caribbean, who monitors the operations of food service operations, attractions and locations where family and fine-dining takes place. Her work assists them in maintaining and continuing improvements in their Food Safety and Quality Management Systems. It is both TSL's and her mission to ensure that the causes of food-borne illnesses are kept at a minimum.

Dr Wendy-Gaye Thomas is group technical manager, Technological Solutions Limited, a Jamaican food technology company. Email her at wendy.thomas@tsltech.com


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