U.S. Homes Losing Battle of the Germs

Study Shows Housecleaning Habits of Americans Leave Something to Be Desired

From the WebMD Archives

July 14, 2009 -- Your home is loaded with disease-causing germs, including some that migrate from bathrooms, a new study shows.

The study by the Hygiene Council found that Americans and people in seven other countries are losing the battle of the bugs, mainly because we don't clean up well enough, or we don't wipe down the right stuff.

For example, in the U.S., television remote controls are a lot cleaner than kitchen taps or toilet handles, council member Philip M. Tierno Jr., MD, associate professor of microbiology and pathology at the New York University School of Medicine, tells WebMD.

The council was formed in 2006 as a disease-fighting initiative involving public health experts around the world. Sponsored by an educational grant from Reckitt Benckiser, maker of Lysol brand products, its goals are to formulate easy and practical recommendations for better hygiene.

The council sent teams of germ detectives armed with swabs into houses in the U.S., U.K, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Australia, South Africa, India, and Malaysia. The teams sent samples from the homes to labs for microscopic analysis.

The latest analysis found that:

  • Faucets and sponges in kitchens harbor more germs than bathroom surfaces such as flush handles.
  • Americans' kitchen hygiene actually got worse in 2009, compared to 2008.
  • Despite claims of Americans that they clean kitchen sink faucets at least once a week, 60% of the faucets swabbed failed the scientific group's hygiene test, compared to only 25% in 2008.
  • 65% of Americans claim to clean or change kitchen sponges or cloths every month, but 70% of those failed the tests because they were loaded with bad bugs.
  • The U.K., Germany, and Saudi Arabia all had cleaner kitchen sink faucets than the U.S.

In the eight countries checked this year:

  • Cleaning cloths were the most contaminated items sampled. Thirty-one percent of cloths were contaminated with E. coli and 21% with Staphylococcus aureus.
  • Kitchen taps were the second most contaminated.
  • 19% of people whose homes were checked said they cleaned to make areas look clean, rather than to kill germs.


Hand Washing: Best Defense Against Household Germs

Tierno tells WebMD that 80% of all infections are transmitted by direct contact, such as touching a doorknob, shaking hands, touching your nose, or being the target of a sneeze.

Few people seem to realize that toilets throw out countless germs every time they are flushed, contaminating toothbrushes and other everyday grooming devices, he says. Thus, toothbrushes should be covered or kept in a drawer.

"Hand washing in and of itself can be the most important thing people can do," he says. "But people don't practice it, and if they do, they don't do it properly. You should wash long enough to sing 'Happy Birthday' twice."

Kitchen sinks, faucets, and handles often contain fecal matter because people don't wash their hands sufficiently, he tells WebMD. So do computer keyboards, telephones, books, and pens.

"You don't have to walk around with a spray bottle," he says. "Carry around an alcoholic gel to wash your hands. Wash often. You may not know it, but bathtubs are dirtier than toilets."

Housecleaning Has a Long Way to Go

Council member John Oxford, a professor of virology at St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry, tells WebMD that "this report kind of brings out the fact that we have a long way to go to get back to where we were after the Second World War."

Before antibiotics, people put more effort into cleaning, he says. But in the past few decades, he tells WebMD, "we have thrown away the advantage that antibiotics gave us. We are finding serous chinks in the armor in the kitchen. A lot comes from the toilet. People come out with fecal matter on their hands, and you can see this in any bathroom, with people just running a little water over their fingers."

Now, he adds, "it's time to pull our socks up. We've got to do better. Things have gotten relaxed. We've got to get the story out. Wash your hands. Cough or sneeze into your arm. Realize sneezes settle and you can get the germs from where they land."


But habits are hard to change, says Boadie Dunlop, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine, and being told to do unaccustomed things can raise anxiety levels.

"Hearing about germs that can't be seen is an abstraction," Dunlop tells WebMD. "If you see a piece of moldy bread on your counter, you are going to be highly motivated to throw it in the garbage. But it's not the same if you didn't wash down your countertops last night. You don't see anything."

A motivating factor behind good hygiene is a feeling of disgust, Dunlop says.

"You see a roach, rotten food, it's quite motivating to do something about it," he says. "It's visceral disgust, whereas things that you can't see, it's hard to get disgusted about. The issue of cleanliness is more one of disgust than anxiety."

It's human nature for people to rationalize why they don't clean, he says, using excuses such as a lack of time, being too tired, or saying it will get done later.

"It's like teeth brushing, flossing; how many people don't do that, though they know they should," Dunlop says. "And exercising. And proper sleep hygiene. We are bombarded with things we are not doing right that we should be doing for our health. We have to make choices."

Jane Allen, 60, of the Atlanta area, tells WebMD her kitchen floor "is probably the dirtiest place in our house because I'm a messy cook, and I hate to mop." But she takes other steps to kill germs.

"We spray the counters with Lysol before we do any prep work there," Allen says.

That's good, but people should do more, says Tierno, "to avoid getting sick."

Recommendations for Better Home Hygiene

What else can people do to keep the germs they don't see at bay? Here are some tips from the experts:

  • Remember, if a cloth is dirty, it won't do any good to use it for cleaning.
  • Faucets should be cleaned more often and only with disposable cloths.
  • If cloths are washed by machine, make sure water temperature is high.
  • Use separate cloths to wash up with and to wipe kitchen surfaces.
  • Use separate cloths for bathroom and kitchen.
  • Use paper towels and anti-bacterial sprays.
  • After preparing raw chicken and meat, thoroughly clean chopping boards, work surfaces, kitchen taps, sinks, and door handles.
  • Wipe up spills on floors.
  • Wash hands thoroughly and often.
  • Practice cough and sneeze etiquette. Cough into your elbow, not your hands, and sneeze into a tissue to minimize hand contact with germs.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on July 14, 2009



News release, Hygiene Council.

Hygiene Council study, conducted March/April 2009.

Philip Tierno, MD, director, clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology, Tisch Hospital, New York University Medical Center.

John Oxford, chairman, Hygiene Council; professor of biology, St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, Queen Mary School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Boadie Dunlop, MD, professor of psychiatry, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta.

Jane Allen, Marietta, Ga.

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