Lifewatch: Germs in your home

Reported by Claire Hosmann - bio|email
Posted by Debra Worley - email

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Thousand of germs are lurking in some unexpected places in your home.  They're on the floor, your sinks, and even your TV's.  These bacteria and viruses can be transferred onto your body where they can cause disease.

One of the most popular places for germs to congregate is in your kitchen and the food in it.  Meals that are not cooked thoroughly become breeding ground for bacteria.

"Heating food all the way through, throwing away leftovers that are too old, and letting your kitchen sponge completely dry out reduces your risk," said Dr. John Snyder* with New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Grilling can be toxic, because burning charcoal produces particles that can lodge into your lungs and irritate the respiratory conditions.

Certain products can also release dangerous amounts of carcinogenic compounds. To avoid this, Snyder says to partially cook the meat indoors before grilling or wrap in aluminum foil.

Other places germs like to hide are on door knobs, computers, and telephones.

"Often times these items [door knobs, computer keyboards, salt and pepper shakers] are touched in the homes by people with dirty hands, and in this way you can actually transmit things like viruses or MRSA, which is an antibiotic resistant bacteria," said Snyder.

One of the most potent areas for germs is your medicine cabinet, and young children can easily swallow the medication.

"Read the labels carefully, follow all directions, and use caution when mixing these items with each other or prescription drugs," said Snyder.

It is important to properly dispose of expired medications by crushing them up and throwing them away.  Never dump pills in the toilet.

Many communities offer drug take-back programs that will properly dispose of your old or unused medications.

While your home may never truly be free of all germs, you can drastically reduce the amount by keeping your home clean.

The Top 10 Things in Your Home that Could Make You and Your Family Sick

10.  Your charcoal grill.

When you are cooking meat on your grill, fat can drip down, catch on fire, create smoke, and create molecules that cause cancer - called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.  Grilling less often, choosing lean meats, partially cooking the meat inside first before grilling, and wrapping the meat in aluminum foil when you grill can reduce your exposure to these molecules.

9.  Your bed.

Your pillow, mattress, and bed sheets, your vacuum cleaner and carpet, and your unbathed dog can all increase your exposure to dust mites and pollen - which can worsen allergy and asthma symptoms.  Vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters help trap the particles that cause symptoms.  Mattress and pillow covers, and washing your sheets weekly with hot water may reduce particle accumulation.  And outdoor pets should be bathed every 1-2 weeks to reduce the particles, dirt, and fleas that can be brought into your home.

8.  Your door knobs.

As well as your computer keyboard, salt & pepper shakers, and dish/hand towels are often touched by people with dirty hands, causing the spread of germs such as viruses and MRSA (a Staph infection resistant to certain antibiotics).  Often these items are not cleaned and disinfected often enough.  Frequent use of sanitizing agents can help reduce your risk.

7.  Your kitchen.

Poorly heated/re-heated meals and expired food, dishes standing too long in the sink, and your kitchen sponge can all expose you to food poisoning and infections such as from viruses, E.coli, and Salmonella.  Throw away food that has expired.  Avoid microwaving as a means for cooking raw meats, and ensure that you heat left-overs all the way through.  Wash dishes soon after using them.  And disinfect sponges, letting them dry completely, to reduce the germs that they pick up from making you sick.  Some experts suggest that heating a wet sponge for a minute or two in the microwave each week can help kill bacteria in it - however others warn that this can cause the sponge to catch fire.

6.  Under your sink.

Cleaning chemicals that are improperly mixed, such as ammonia and bleach, can create poisonous gas that can irritate the eyes and lungs or cause even worse problems.  Many insecticides are toxic to your nerves and can cause many serious problems.  It is critical that you read labels carefully and follow all the precautions for any household chemical products.  Products also must be used in well-ventilated areas.  Extra precautions must be made to keep these products out of the hands of children - keep items where kids cannot find or access them.  If you are using a product, do not leave a child alone with it - not even for a minute.

5.  The walls of your house.

Older homes can have lead in paint or in its pipes.  Chipping paint, such as that on windowsills where the friction of opening and closing breaks the paint down into a powder, can increase your exposure.  Lead poisoning from pipes and paint can cause numerous problems, such as abdominal symptoms and nerve damage.  Also in the insulation of some older homes, asbestos can cause lung cancer.  If you suspect that there is lead or asbestos is in your home, you may need to have a housing inspector investigate the matter for you.

4.  Your air conditioner and central air.

Mold can grow in air conditioning ductwork and the basement, anywhere that water damage or pooling has occurred, and can even be on antique furniture (giving it that "musty" smell).  Chronic cough and sinus or asthma symptoms can result from exposure.  Keeping your AC and its ducts clean, and regularly changing air filters can help.  Dehumidifiers will help keep basements and crawl spaces dry to help prevent mold growth, but true mold problems often need to be handled by a professional home inspector.

3.  Your garage.

Carbon monoxide poisoning can occur from fires, furnaces, blocked-up chimneys, and the emissions of vehicles and gas-powered equipment such as heaters or the propane stoves on a house boat.  Symptoms can include headache, dizziness and nausea, but can be far more serious, resulting in nerve damage, seizures, or even death.  Exposure requires immediate medical attention.  Since the gas is colorless and odorless, it often is only detected by the use of carbon monoxide detectors which are available commercially.

2.  Your medicine cabinet.

Expired prescriptions and "over the counter" (OTC) medications can harm you.  Products should have child-resistant packaging and be kept completely out of the sight and reach of children.  Avoid taking medication in front of kids, and never (ever!) call it "candy".  Adults should never take medications in the dark - carefully read the label for instructions before taking anything.  Also, expired medication may no longer be effective or could even be poisonous - every once in a while, clean out your medicine cabinet so that old medication is not accidentally taken.  And even though medication may be "over the counter," this doesn't mean that you don't have to be careful taking it.  Follow instructions closely, never exceed the dosing limits on the label, and be cautious mixing products.  If you have any questions, ask your doctor before taking OTC meds.

1.  Your living room.

Sitting on the couch watching television, playing video games, and too much computer time can lead to what is called "a sedentary lifestyle," which can contribute to obesity or cardiovascular (heart) disease.  Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the U.S., killing more people each year than cancer.  If you feel that you might need to exercise more, talk to your doctor about how to do so safely.

*Dr. John E. Snyder is a practicing internal medicine physician with the SEAHEC/University Physicians group in Wilmington, and he also serves as faculty at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill and as the Program Director of the internal medicine residency and medical student education at NHRMC.  Dr. Snyder's research and writing interests are in the fields of medical ethics and cultural competency in medicine. His most well-known publication is the book Evidence-Based Medical Ethics: Cases for Practice-Based Learning; and his second book, entitled Breaking Down Barriers is due to be published in early 2010.

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