Coming to Terms With Germs

In the 19th century, Agustino Bassi made the radical proposition that germs caused disease.

Over the next 40 years, it took the great minds of Francesco Redi, Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch to prove it.

Scientists have been finding ways to fight the "wee beasties" ever since.

And the fight has largely been a success. By practically wiping out cholera, diphtheria, polio and hosts of other diseases, life expectancy in the United States has gone from 49 years in 1901 to 77 years in 2000.

But the average person sometimes goes overboard trying to wipe out all the germs around them.

Recently, researchers at the University of Florida showed how a two-minute blast in the microwave could effectively sterilize sewage-soaked sponges full of E. coli, Bacillus cereus and a host of other potential disease-causing organisms.

The researchers found that more than 99 percent of the organisms were effectively killed.

However, news of the method has since led to a few kitchen fires and scorched appliances, as people have thrown dish towels, plastic sponges and sponges with metal mesh scrubbers into microwaves.

The results have included lingering burning plastic smells, charred sponges and metal scorch marks in many a microwave oven.

Separating Caution From Paranoia

The October 2006 estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal 76 million cases of food-borne illness in the United States each year, which cause 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths.

Most of these are from unidentified or unknown pathogens, but many of these deaths could be prevented with better food preparation and hygiene.

With this in mind, I understand it's always nice to find new uses for old tools, in this case, your microwave. Not only can it cook your side dishes in less than two minutes, but it can also sterilize the sponge you just used to clean up after cutting up the raw chicken strips.

Just two minutes in the microwave and all those nasty salmonella bacteria are zapped out of existence -- just remember to wet the sponge first, and let it cool before you try to remove it.

Dr. Carolyn Eaton is a personal visiting physician for Care Level Management in San Antonio and is the vice chair of the Texas Academy of Family Physicians' Commission on Public Health.

Now, do you need to use this method of sanitizing sponges for normal kitchen use? It depends. In homes with very young children and elderly or immunocompromised individuals, it is a good idea to keep sanitation at the highest standards, because these individuals are the most affected.

For everyone else, when cleaning up after raw eggs or cutting raw meat products, the most common sources of disease-causing bacteria, using this technique or throwing away the sponge or using a disposable paper towel is probably a good idea.

But the Western world has developed a deep-seated paranoia about all bacteria, and some people act like they'll be the next to get some flesh-eating bacteria -- most of which you can actually only get by swimming in contaminated water with an open sore.

Germs Can Be Friendly, Too

Because not all bacteria cause disease, and some are very helpful, trying to kill all bacteria in a household is not only impractical, but dangerous.

Some bacteria and virus exposure is important to creating a healthy immune system and people can be "too clean" -- so routine wipe downs of coffee spills, etc. really doesn't need the "nuking the sponge" treatment.

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