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Spring cleanup

2:31 AM, Posted by healthsensei, 9 Comments

10 Worst Germ Hot Spots

Kitchen Faucet

That metal aeration screen at the end of the faucet is a total germ magnet.

Running water keeps the screen moist, an ideal condition for bacteria growth. Because tap water is far from sterile, if you accidentally touch the screen with dirty fingers or food, bacteria can grow on the faucet, explains microbiologist Kelly Reynolds, PhD, an associate professor of community environment and policy at the University of Arizona College of Public Health. Over time, bacteria build up and form a wall of pathogens called biofilm that sticks to the screen. "Eventually, that biofilm may even be big enough to break off and get onto your food or dishes," she notes.

Keep It Clean: Once a week, remove the screen and soak it in a diluted bleach solution--follow the directions on the label. Replace the screen, and let the water run a few minutes before using.

Garbage Disposal

Bacteria from last night’s dinner could end up on today’s food and utensils if you’re not careful.

That raw chicken or spinach you're rinsing for dinner is often loaded with harmful bacteria, which can make the young, the elderly, or anyone with a compromised immune system seriously ill. In fact, there are often more than 500,000 bacteria in the kitchen sink--about 1,000 times more than the average toilet has. Although the metal part of the disposal produces ions that can help kill germs, they still love to grow on the crevices in and around the slimy rubber stopper. That means your disposal can become party central for bacteria, contaminating whatever touches it--dishes, utensils, even your hands.

Keep It Clean: At least once a week, clean the disposal's rubber stopper with a diluted bleach solution--soap and water aren't enough.

Welcome Mat

It serves to greet not only your guests but also all the bugs on the bottoms of their shoes.

In fact, one study found that nearly 96% of shoe soles had traces of coliform, which includes fecal bacteria. "The area near your front door is one of the dirtiest in the house," says Reynolds. Once bacteria plant their stakes in your mat, anytime you walk on it, you give them a free ride into your home.

Keep It Clean: Spray the doormat once a week with a fabric-safe disinfectant (such as Lysol Disinfectant Spray). Leave shoes at the door, and avoid resting bags and groceries on the mat, too

Vacuum Cleaner

It’s all in the bag—including spreadable germs.

"Vacuums--including the brushes and bags--are like meals-on-wheels for bacteria," says Charles Gerba, PhD, professor of environmental biology at the University of Arizona "You suck in all this bacteria and food, creating an atmosphere for growth." A recent study by Gerba and his team found that 13% of all vacuum cleaner brushes tested positive for E. coli, which means you could spread it around the house each time you use the appliance.

Keep It Clean: Change your vacuum bag frequently, and do so outdoors to avoid the cloud of bacteria that filters into the air. (Vacuum bags that feature antibacterial linings are best, and are available for many major brands.) Clean the cavity of a bagless vacuum with diluted bleach and let it air-dry.

Dish Towel

You know a sponge can harbor nasty germs, but dish towels are just as dangerous.

A recent study of hundreds of homes across the United States found that about 7% of kitchen towels were contaminated with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), the difficult-to-treat staph bacteria that can cause life-threatening skin infections. Dish towels also rated tops for dangerous strains of E. coli and other bacteria. We often use towels to wipe up spills, says Reynolds, then reuse before washing them, which spreads germs.

Keep It Clean: Stick to paper towels to clean countertops, and save the dishrag to dry just-washed pots and plates. Change towels or launder at least twice a week in hot water and bleach.

Car Dashboard

This is your vehicle's second-most-common spot for bacteria and mold.

Here’s why: When air—which carries mold spores and bacteria—gets sucked in through the vents, it's often drawn to the dashboard, where it can deposit the spores and germs. Because the dashboard receives the most sun and tends to stay warm, it's prime for growth. (The number one germ zone? Food spills.)

Keep It Clean: Regularly swipe the inside of your car with disinfecting wipes. Be more vigilant during allergy season—about 20 million Americans are affected by asthma, which is caused in part by an allergic reaction to mold.

Soap Dispensers

About 25% of public restroom dispensers are contaminated by fecal bacteria.

Soap that harbors bacteria may sound ironic, but that’s exactly what a recent study found. "Most of these containers are never cleaned, so bacteria grows as the soap scum builds up," says Gerba. "And the bottoms are touched by dirty hands, so there's a continuous culture going on feeding millions of bacteria."

Keep It Clean: Be sure to scrub hands thoroughly for 15 to 20 seconds with plenty of hot water--and if you have an alcohol gel disinfectant, use that, too.

Restaurant Ketchup Bottle

Those condiments on the tabletop are grimier than you think.

It's the rare eatery that regularly bleaches down condiment containers. And the reality is that many people don't wash their hands before eating, says Reynolds. So while you may be diligent, the guy who poured the ketchup before you may not have been, which means his germs are now on your fries.

Keep It Clean: Squirt hand sanitizer on the outside of the bottle or use a disinfectant wipe before you grab it. Holding the bottle with a napkin won't help--they're porous, so microorganisms can walk right through, says Reynolds.

Do you scrub the inside of your fridge? It’s not enough.

A University of Arizona survey of 160 homes in three US cities found that the seal around the fridge tested positive 83% of the time for common molds. The mold can spread every time the refrigerator door opens--exposing anyone who's susceptible to allergies and potentially contaminating the food.

Keep It Clean: Wipe fridge seals at least once a week with a diluted bleach solution or disinfectant.

Cell Phone

Drop your cell any place that’s convenient? Read this first.

Several studies on cell phones and PDAs found that they carry tons of bacteria, including staph (which can cause skin infections), pseudomonas (eye infections), and salmonella (stomach ailments). Many electronic devices are sheathed in leather or vinyl cases, which provide plenty of creases and crevices for germs to hide.

Keep It Clean: Use a disinfecting wipe a few times a week, and be conscious of where you rest personal items

Speed clean the healthy way!

The Healthiest Time To Toss it!

Reduce allergies

Replace pillows every year

Hair and body oils will have soaked into a pillow's fabric and stuffing after a year of nightly use, making it a breeding ground for odor causing bacteria and allergy triggering dust mites. Using protectors can double the life of your pillows.

Get deeper sleep

Toss your mattress after 5 to 10 years

A good mattress lasts 9 to 10 years, according to the National Sleep Foundation, but consider replacing yours every 5 to 7 years if you don't sleep well. A study at Oklahoma State University found that most people who switched to new bedding after 5 years sleep significantly better and have less back pain.

Be alert to danger

Change smoke alarms after 10 years

After a decade of continual vigilance, a unit's sensors become less sensitive putting you at greater risk from smoke or fire should a blaze erupt. Test smoke alarms monthly and replace batteries with new ones every year. To safeguard your family, install alarms on every level of your home, in bedrooms, and outside all sleeping areas. Scary stat: One fifth of US homes have smoke alarms that don't work.

Stay cool and save $$$

Keep air conditioners until they die

With proper maintenance, including annual servicing, a room or central air conditioner can easily run for up to 15 years, especially if you don't operate it year round, says Bill Harrison, president elect of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers. Check the filter at least every 6 weeks, particularly in humid weather. "If dirt covers the filter so you can't see the original material or view light through it, clean it or buy a new one," he says.

Maintain pills' potency

Replace vitamins after 2 years

Independent tests find that most nutritional supplements are good for 3 years if stored in a cool, dry place, says William Obermeyer, PhD, vice president for research at Consumer­ Because the product may have been sitting on store or warehouse shelves for a year, chuck it 2 years after purchase if there's no expiration date.

Keep blazes at bay

Toss fire extinguishers every 10 years

Portable extinguishers may lose pressure over time and become ineffective whether or not they've been triggered, says Lorraine Carli, national spokesperson for the National Fire Protection Association. If your extinguisher is rechargeable, have it serviced every 6 years or when the pressure is low. (Look for service companies in the Yellow Pages under fire extinguishers.)

Drink purer, safer H2O

Keep water filters 20% longer than normal

"Filters that make health claims like lead removal are designed to provide a margin of safety in case they're not changed on time," says Rick Andrew, operations manager at NSF International, an Ann Arbor, MI based company that tests filters. (This applies to most drinking water purifiers, including models from Culligan, Brita, and PUR.) Those equipped with expiration indicators (such as trigger lights) last 20% longer than their recommended life so a filter certified to clean 100 gallons actually purifies 120. Filters without an indictor last even longer, cleaning twice the number of gallons claimed.

Protect against foodborne bacteria

Hold on to cutting boards indefinitely

How you sanitize the board and not its age is what kills bugs such as E. coli and Salmonella. "The decision to replace one is ultimately based on when you think it looks too beat up," says Brenda Wilson, PhD, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Even a board with deep cracks or grooves is safe if it's sanitized after each use: Wash the board with detergent and hot water; then rinse and flood with a solution of 1 part full strength white vinegar to 4 parts water and let it sit for 5 minutes. Rinse with clean water, pat with a clean towel, and air dry.

Keep eyes healthy

Discard contact lens solution after 3 months

Discard contact lens solution after 3 months

"Once the seal is broken, germs can contaminate bottles that are left uncapped or that lack a backflow device, increasing your risk of infection," says Louise A. Sclafani, OD, an associate professor of ophthalmology at University of Chicago Hospital. Get a new case every 3 months, too.

Safeguard oral health

Replace your toothbrush every 3 to 4 months

The American Dental Association recommends a 3 to 4 month rotation because frayed and worn bristles don't clean as well leaving teeth more vulnerable to decay.

Prevent infection

Throw away eye makeup 6 months after opening

The applicators used to apply mascara, liner, and shadow are repeatedly exposed to bacteria in the air and on your lashes; after 6 months of everyday use, they can overpower the products' preservatives, says John Bailey, PhD, chief scientist at the Personal Care Products Council. Liquid products that don't touch the eyes, such as foundation, can be used for up to 2 years; dry face products like powder and lip items are generally formulated to last at least 3.

Heal wounds faster

Toss antibacterial cream after 1 year

Beyond a year, the antibiotic is probably still good, but the chemical mix in the ointment may start to go bad, which may make the product less effective.

Fight flakes

Hang on to dandruff shampoo for 3 years

Most medicated shampoo will stay effective at least that long if there isn't an expiration date. Adding water to an almost empty bottle to get the last bit from the bottom dilutes preservatives and makes them less effective. Toss the remainder after several days.

Cool, soothe & disinfect

Use rubbing alcohol until the bottle is empty

"Rubbing alcohol practically lasts forever," says Abigail Salyers, PhD, a professor of microbiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Even after exposure to air, the alcohol/water solution remains stable for years, if not decades, and the alcohol kills any microbes that might get into the bottle.

The New Allergy Zones

11 surprising places where irritants lurk--and easy ways to get rid of them.

Pet-Owning Visitors

Pals with pooches may be unwittingly dragging pet dander into your home.

They usually have animal dander on their clothes, and can deposit this irritant on upholstered furniture--even if they don't bring Fido or Felix with them.

Solution: Vacuum your couches and padded chairs after pet-owning pals sit on them. Prevent the allergens from spewing right back out of the machine by using one with a HEPA filter (which traps tiny particles so they can't escape the dust bag).

Couch Pillows, Throws, and Stuffed Toys

Sitting on the sofa may set off allergy symptoms.

These items come into contact with skin, and that means tiny flakes that slough off and encourage dust mites. If your pet sits on, fetches, or plays with any of these, they're also covered with animal dander.

Solution: Tumble the items in the dryer on high for 10 to 15 minutes each week. (If this will damage the material, clean instead according to the manufacturer's instructions.)

Book Shelves

It's not just your novel's plot twists that are causing your eyes to tear up.

You can also blame the dust that collects on books and other shelf-dwellers, including framed photographs and mementos. Books can also contribute to indoor mold problems, especially in humid conditions.

Solution: Keep shelves of all kinds, including bookshelves, away from the bed, or banish them from the bedroom entirely. Place trinkets behind glass doors so they don't collect dust. Clean surfaces and vacuum bedroom floors at least once a week.

Bed Pillows

Dust mites flock to this icky allergen breeding ground.

The warmth and humidity of your body encourage dust mites to grow in bed pillows, no matter what type of stuffing they have.

Solution: Either trade old pillows for new ones annually, or encase pillows in allergy-proof covers that you wash once or twice a month in hot water (follow the manufacturer's instructions). The most allergy-resistant, comfortable cases are made of tightly woven fabric that's impermeable to dust mites--and feels good to the touch. Check out the options at and

Bathroom Floor Mat

Stepping out of the shower may be bringing on your sneezing and wheezing.

Trapped moisture in the bath mat causes dust mites and mold to thrive.

Solution: Choose a washable mat and clean it weekly. After a shower or steamy bath, hang it up and open a window or run the fan.

Refrigerator Door Seal

This rarely cleaned germ zone is an easy place for mold to thrive.

As you transfer food in and out of the refrigerator, moisture, crumbs, and spills can build up in the crevices of the door seal and encourage mold to flourish there.

Solution: Wipe the seal with a mixture of mold-zapping bleach and water weekly; use a cotton swab to get into the grooves and clean them thoroughly

Cooking Steam

It turns out boiling a pot of penne can be a significant allergy trigger.

Steam wafts from pots and pans as you cook and settles in places you may not clean daily, causing mold to build up. Spots where dampness may land include walls, ceilings, cupboard doors, upper shelves, and areas hidden behind large appliances.

Solution: Run the stove's exhaust fan to vent cooking moisture--not just smells--out of the house. If mold does appear, eliminate it with a solution of bleach and water.

Damp Clothes

Letting wet clothes sit in the hamper or in the washing machine could cause germs to invade your laundry pile.

Mold and bacteria can develop on damp, unwashed clothing that sits around for days before it's laundered, as well as on clean items left in the washer tub for more than a few hours.

Solution: Don't let moist, dirty laundry build up, and dry freshly washed items ASAP. Here's a bonus idea: Use liquid detergent instead of powder, which can produce irritating dust, worsening your allergy symptoms.

Your Hair and Clothes

You’re an unsuspecting Trojan horse for sneaking annoying allergens into your home.

When you arrive home after spending time outdoors, you carry in dust and pollen on your shoes and clothes and in your hair (long hair and loose hairstyles tend to trap more irritants than short or tightly bound strands).

Solution: When outside, cover your hair with a hat or scarf. When you get home, remove your head covering and shoes inside the door, change into clothes that you wear only indoors, and shampoo and dry your hair. Wash your comb and brush weekly to keep them free of any irritants they've picked up.


Here’s one time when it’s not so easy being green.

Damp soil can support the development of mold, and if you spill occasionally as you water, you can encourage growths in any carpet or curtains you happen to hit.

Solution: Give away or toss out plants if mold and dust cause you to have severe symptoms. If you choose to keep the plants instead, place the pots on tile and well away from curtains. Bonus tip: A layer of pebbles or small stones placed on top of the soil will prevent the release of mold spores that may be growing in the soil.

Fish Tank

Without proper care, you may find Nemo contributing to your symptoms.

Mold grows on parts of the tank or bowl that are out of the water but nevertheless remain damp. Carelessly strewn fish food also helps mold develop and can nourish a dust mite colony.

Solution: Use a rag to dry off above-water tank parts daily. When you feed the fish, make sure the food lands in the water, not on the tabletop or floor.

Which is healthier: Deodorizing with a scented candle or an air freshener?

Answer: Neither. "You're just masking a foul odor by introducing a stronger one," says James Sublett, MD, chief of pediatric allergy and immunology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. Worse, candles release particles of soot, and candles and air fresheners give off synthetic fragrances--all of which can exacerbate allergy and asthma symptoms. If you love the look of candles, don't despair--try unscented beeswax candles, which have a light honey fragrance that won't worsen symptoms. (They also produce much less soot than paraffin.) But the healthiest way to get rid of an odor is to crack open a window and turn on a fan to circulate air.

Which is healthier: Sponge mop or rag mop?

Answer: Sponge mop. Even after rinsing, more dirt and bacteria sticks to the strands of a rag mop than to the sponge. Besides, the sponge's flat surface cleans more effectively. Use a solution of 1 ounce of bleach per quart of water, plus some soap, to clean floors. When you're done, rinse the mop with a fresh batch of the solution, says Philip M. Tierno Jr., PhD, director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center. Stand the mop up in the shower to dry to keep germs from multiplying.

Which is healthier: Dropping a tablet into the tank or using a toilet brush?

Answer: Toilet brush. Though tablets release cleansers with each flush, you still need to scrub to get rid of dirt, says Tierno. Try pouring 1 cup of bleach into the toilet before going to bed. The bleach breaks down bacteria and fungus overnight, making your job easier.

Which is healthier: The oven's self-cleaning feature or elbow grease?
Answer: Clean it yourself. A "self-cleaning" appliance may seem convenient, but it can create a toxic home environment, says Jeff May, a certified indoor air quality investigator and author of Jeff May's Healthy Home Tips. The feature heats the oven as high as 900°F and burns off everything inside. Even if the oven is sealed tightly, it'll release smoke, fumes, and carbon monoxide, he says. Instead, sprinkle baking soda in a quarter-inch layer. Spritz the baking soda with water until damp, says Annie Bond, author of Better Basics for the Home: Simple Solutions for Less Toxic Living. Let it sit overnight--the grime should lift right off the next day.

Which is healthier: Cleaning a humidifier once a week or not using one?

Answer: Not using one. Dry air parches nasal passages, making you more vulnerable to catching a virus. But a humidifier does more harm than good because it encourages mold growth, which can aggravate asthma and allergy symptoms, Sublett explains. Measure the relative humidity in your home with a hygrometer (such as Honeywell's digital wireless one, $25,, and make sure it falls between 35 and 65%, says May. Too low? Float some blossoms in bowls of water throughout the house; as the water evaporates, the humidity will rise.

Which is healthier: Bleach or ammonia?

Answer: Bleach. Ammonia fumes are more irritating to the skin, eyes, nose, and lungs, Tierno says. Bleach is better at cutting dirt and killing germs. But a little goes a long way: One ounce of bleach per quart of water will remove the toughest mold from the tightest spots. Whatever you do, don't mix bleach and ammonia. The combination creates chloramine, a gas that can damage your airways.

Which is healthier: Cleaning pet accidents with baking soda or vinegar?
Answer: Vinegar. Animal excrement is full of bacteria and possibly parasites. The most important thing to do is to break up the enzymes in the urine or stool, says Sarah Hodgson, author of Puppies for Dummies, because the enzymes are what encourage your animal to mark in the same spot again. Fill a spray bottle with a half-and-half mixture of vinegar (apple cider or white) and water. Saturate the area with the solution and pat it dry with a paper towel; repeat and let dry.

Natural Solutions for Dirt

Reach for these gentle products the next time messes happen.

For Stains: Use baking soda Sprinkle it on the stain until completely covered; spray with water. When baking soda is absorbed, wipe clean with a cloth.

For Mold, bacteria, and grease: Use vinegar Fill a spray bottle with distilled white vinegar. Saturate the affected area and then simply let the vinegar evaporate.

For Soot, wax, and oil: Use washing soda (sodium carbonate) on stone or glass. A cousin to baking soda, it can be found in the detergent aisle. Make a thick paste with 1 4 cup of soda and water. Cover stain and let it set for an hour; scrub.

July 2008 Copyright 2008, Prevention


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