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Throatswab Squarepants


Re: kitchen sponges: Just this morning on my way to work, I heard a woman interviewed on morning radio say that toilet seats are MUCH cleaner than typical sponges. I can't believe that. Isn't it true that bathroom bacteria are more infective than kitchen bacteria? If she's right, maybe I'll FINALLY be able to sit down on the toilet instead of hovering. THANKS!


TIKRIT, Iraq—At a press briefing held today along a secured shopping district, a U.S. military spokesperson said efforts to locate misplaced weapons of mass destruction had finally resulted in a dramatic success. The secret maneuvers, dubbed Operation Dysentery Freedom, resulted in seizure of as many as six sodden kitchen sponges from an apartment building near the city center. "Clearly these deadly devices were being readied for deployment," the spokesman said. "Search teams discovered traces of raw chicken and room-temperature potato salad adjacent to the hidden cache."

Even Rick Santorum wouldn't run with this one, but real hazards do exist where you would least suspect them. Household bacterium are responsible for nearly the equivalent of one sickness per person, per year, in this country. And many of these illnesses can be serious. Though bathrooms have a well-earned reputation for peril, the kitchen turns out to be an even bigger offender. But it's not exactly breaking news. The study referred to on your morning radio program was initially reported in 1998 (I hope your local station is faster with tornado warnings).

In the study, Dr. Charles Gerba, an environmental microbiologist, examined 14 sites inside more than a dozen homes. His findings were shocking: Toilet seats were actually the cleanest of all locations, while sponges, sinks/drains and cutting boards (in that order) were the most infectious. These results suggest one might be safer washing their tomatoes in the toilet and then slicing them on the seat. Even worse, countertops wiped by kitchen sponges were so dirty that assembling your BLT on the bathroom floor would be preferable.

Essentially a little domestic Petri dish, the sponge provides bacteria with a constantly moist environment, teeny tiny living compartments and an all-you-can-eat buffet (simply add Tony Orlando for the complete Carnival Cruise). This is probably the reason that the Model Food Code, the FDA's food safety guidelines, forbids the use of sponges in the restaurant industry. As an alternative, most food services use dishrags that can be routinely laundered or other cloths that will dry completely following use.

Still, that scrubby-sided fellow is hard to give up. For those who would rather risk Salmonella than give up their Scotch-Brite, lots of decontamination methods have been tested. The most commonly recommended approach, dropping it into your dishwasher, hasn't been shown to be effective. Sponges are, by necessity, porous, but dishwashers are really designed to clean flat-sided objects. Although the heat and soap can disinfect the outer parts, the inside remains a virtual bacterial Tora-Bora.

Another method, boiling sponges in water for three minutes has definitely been proven to sanitize sponges. The problem is that I've never met anyone fastidious enough to keep up the nightly ritual. The routine I use is modified from an experiment done by the editor's of Cook's Illustrated magazine: Simply splash the wet sponge with a little white vinegar and microwave the infectious thing on high for two minutes. An advantage of this little technique is that the vinegary steam also softens any dried splatters inside the oven. The procedure's only failing is the resultant test of character: Will you now wipe off that gunk with your fresh, sterile sponge?

Jill, your assumption that bathroom germs are worse than kitchen ones is understandable, but not necessarily true. Crossover, from both locations, provides plenty of opportunity for infection. A good sanitizing spray for kitchens and bathrooms can be made with a teaspoon of bleach in a quart of water. Countertops, cutting boards and sinks, as well as the handles on the toilet, faucet and cabinets can be easily disinfected (most without rinsing). Bleach's ability to kill viruses, as well as bacteria, gives it the advantage over plain soap and water.

I hope this eases your mind. Hovering and other balancing acts over toilet seats are practices best left to the family dog. Who, as it turns out, had it right all along. Drinking out of the toilet now seems almost hygienic compared to his kitchen water bowl. I certainly don't plan to emulate him in the foreseeable future, but I do promise to stop pushing him in.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send slow-cooker sponge soup recipes and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).