Bacteria is one of the superstars of the food world. It’s in your yogurt. It’s responsible for that sauerkraut on your bratwurst and the pepperoni on your pizza. Other bacteria can be dangerous though, as in the case of pneumonia or tetanus.
Since you can’t see bacteria, when those bacterial hazards are in your home, they can be tough to eliminate. There are, however, some typical spots where bacteria thrive, and taking the right steps can reduce the chances that you will come into contact with them. And contrary to popular belief, your kitchen sponge is not one of the worst offenders. While the average sponge does contain a large number of bacteria, it is rare that hazardous bacteria are found in sponges. There are plenty of other bacteria and bacteria-prone surfaces you should worry about, though.
4 Bacterial Hazards You Can Do Something About Today
Salmonella is the nemesis of the summer barbeque and picnic season. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Salmonella sends approximately 19,000 people to the hospital every year.
In your home, Salmonella thrives on undercooked meats, contaminated eggs, and even raw fruits and vegetables. Contaminated surfaces may also spread the bacteria to other foods. The symptoms of Salmonellosis include fever, vomiting, cramps, and diarrhea, and they may last from two to seven days.
You can prevent Salmonella by frequently and carefully washing your hands and food preparation surfaces, cooking foods to a proper temperature (for most meats, that is an internal temperature of 160º F), and storing any foods either below 40º F or over 140º F.
While most food-borne bacterial hazards can be reduced by refrigeration, Listeria is an exception. Listeria can live in your refrigerator on deli meats, hot dogs, some soft cheeses such as Brie and Feta, smoked seafood, and some produce and fruits.
The symptoms of Listeria include fever, vomiting, stiff neck, weakness, and sometimes diarrhea. Listeria kills approximately 260 people every year, and the illness can last up to several weeks.
To prevent Listeria, thoroughly wash all food preparation surfaces and tools, rinse raw produce under running water, keep raw meats and seafood away from vegetables and other foods, and fully cook all meats before you serve them.
3. Escherichia coli (E. coli)
Few bacterial hazards have a more frightening reputation than E. coli. Interestingly, however, E. coli isn’t necessarily a harmful bacteria. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is “an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract.” A few strains are quite dangerous, though.
Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) is responsible for numerous and widespread health problems. Illnesses associated with E. coli include a mild fever, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. In severe cases it can cause life-threatening kidney failure.
In your home, E. coli may be present in backyard pools, food preparation surfaces, raw dough and batter, undercooked beef, and some raw cheeses. To prevent an infection, wash your hands after using the bathroom and before preparing any food, cook meats thoroughly, and keep food preparation surfaces clean. (And just a note, because we all want to know, store-bought cookie dough ice cream is acceptable according to the CDC because the flour used in the dough is “treated to kill harmful bacteria.")
4. Group A Streptococcal bacteria
You probably know this bacterial hazard through its more common incarnation: strep throat. Strep is transmitted through “respiratory droplets” when an infected person sneezes or coughs. If those droplets land on door handles, telephones, or other surfaces, they can be picked up and infect another person. Strep is also spread through sharing drinks or food.
The most common symptoms of an infection are a sore throat, fever, and swollen lymph nodes in the neck. If left untreated, Strep may lead to rheumatic fever or inflamed kidneys.
If someone in your home is ill with Strep, the best way to prevent spreading infection is to wash your hands frequently and wash cups, plates, and utensils after a sick person uses them.
What to Do About Bacterial Hazards in Your Home
Bacteria is a fact of life, but there are ways you can limit the dangerous bacteria in your home. Along with carefully cleaning your food prep surfaces, and correctly storing and cooking foods, there are several other methods for keeping your home safe from harmful bacteria.
Remember that bacteria thrive in warm, damp conditions, so pay particular attention to keeping your bathroom and kitchen clean. One natural solution is to clean with vinegar. The American Society for Microbiology published a study indicating vinegar with 6% acidity can kill the bacteria that causes tuberculosis.
Disinfecting wipes and sprays can also help; however, not every surface cleaner is the same. Look for EPA-registered disinfectants. Most of the well-known cleaning products have at least one or two of these in the lineup.
Whichever you decide to use, be aware the CDC recommends allowing a disinfectant to remain on the surface for 3 to 5 minutes to be effective.