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.

Remember, your immune system is like a very vigilant border collie -- extremely attentive when put to the task, but if not given a task, it'll find some other trouble to get into.

In your body's case, your immune system can start over-reacting to agents that are not truly harmful -- peanuts, berries, pollen, and other benign environmental agents.

Many scientists believe that the increasing rate of food and other allergens is due to an underworked immune system.

Avoiding Antibacterial Extremism

Although we haven't quite all descended into the sanitation madness of Howard Hughes, we have gone a little overboard in the routine use of antibacterial soaps and cleaners.

Luckily, no "super germs" have yet developed due to their use. But unless you work in health care, take care of an elderly or medically frail individual, or work with young children, routine use of antibacterials is unnecessary.

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.

Washing your hands for 15 seconds with soap and warm water after using the bathroom, playing with a pet, or shaking hands with someone who has a cold is very effective in preventing disease. It's also a good idea to wash your hands before eating.

Other things everyone should do include:

Putting leftovers away immediately and reheat thoroughly

Not leaving food or dishes on a counter overnight, as this will attract roaches and other unsavory insects

Being careful not to leave uncovered toothbrushes on counters near a toilet. When it flushes, bacteria come up in the air

Only eating thoroughly cooked meats and pasteurized dairy products

Washing all raw produce in warm water thoroughly before eating

Remember, showing good common sense will help prevent a lot of food-borne illnesses -- without overdoing 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.

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