Germs Are Unwelcome Houseguests

In the leafy town of Maplewood, N.J., the sidewalks are spotless and the lawns are manicured, but inside the homes, there live some invisible houseguests -- germs.

Kirsten Fallon has a part-time job, a husband, a dog and three kids, but she still makes time to keep a perfect home. She scrubs the countertops, runs the dishwasher every night and keeps up with the laundry.

"I feel like my kitchen's pretty clean, because I really work on that," Fallon said. "I feel like anything I can to do make my home a safe haven from germs, that's what I need to do."

Germs Tell a Scary Story

But microbiologist Dr. Chuck Gerba found millions of germs that told a different story.

Taking swabs from various surfaces in the Fallons' home, Gerba hit the germ jackpot.

After analyzing the samples at the University of Arizona, Gerba found all different kinds of bacteria, including the kinds that can make you sick. He spotted coliform bacteria, which is intestinal bacteria like e.coli, on seven surfaces, including the kitchen sink faucet, the refrigerator handle, and even the kitchen countertop that gets scrubbed every day.

"She was using a sponge to wipe it down, and coliform bacteria will grow in sponges," Gerba said.

Feeling 'Helpless'

Fallon and her husband, Bill, were even more horrified by the bacteria Gerba found in places where their kids eat and play.

A sample taken from 2-year-old Tate's high-chair tray revealed thousands of bacteria colonies. The handle of Tate's rocking horse had 10 million bacteria.

"That rocking horse is gone tomorrow," Bill said.

The Fallons also vowed to get a new washing machine after finding out about the secret inhabitants hiding out there.

But Gerba said that's not necessary.

"Sometimes it's not a matter of cleaning harder," Gerba said. "It's just knowing where to clean and to remember to use a disinfectant."

But for Fallon, who prides herself on her cleaning skills, it's still a blow.

"I truly feel helpless," she said. "I feel like in our busy lives, cleanliness is a priority here, and it doesn't seem like we're scoring very high."

How to Clean Smarter

Gerba has tips on how to cut down germs in the home by cleaning smarter:

Use wood cutting boards and use separate cutting boards for vegetables and meats.

Clean with anti-bacterial sponges. Sponges are the germiest objects in any house, because bacteria actually grows in them. Don't use the same sponge for cleaning dishes and counters.

Give your washing machine a bleach bath every month.

Don't keep your toothbrush too close to the toilet. When you flush, droplets are ejected that contain bacteria.