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Research Finds Kitchen Towels Are Full of Harmful Bacteria — Here’s What You Can Do

Bacterial pathogens that commonly cause foodborne illnesses (FBIs) linger in the obvious places, of course. The kitchen sink, door-knobs, dirty countertops, and faucet handles are known to be riddled with bacteria that can make you sick. What you may not know is that an unlikely suspect, when it comes to causing food-poisoning, is probably lurking in your kitchen as we speak. Where do these sneaky bacteria thrive? Recent research has just revealed that several types of harmful bacteria may be taking up residence on your kitchen towels.

Just How Gross are They?

Scientists recently evaluated the types and amount of bacteria found on kitchen towels after one month of use, and the amounts are staggering. The research study evaluated the types and amount of bacterial growth on 100 kitchen towels. Results demonstrated that 49 percent of the kitchen towels contained bacteria that can make you sick, including some bacteria that is found inside your body or in fecal matter. Yikes!

There were certain factors that affected the amount and types of bacteria discovered on the towels. More bacteria were found on wet towels versus dry towels, which makes sense because bacteria need moisture to survive and multiply. About 75 percent of the towels that contained dangerous bacteria were found to have bacteria, such as E. coli, that comes from the intestines of animals. Another 14 percent had Staphylococcus aureas — a type of bacterium that lives on the skin and in the respiratory tract. Some strains of Staphylococcus aureas have the ability to produce a toxic substance that causes FBIs. People who ingest the toxin exhibit symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.

Having a larger family, particularly one with children or extended family living in the home, increased the bacteria found on the towels. Being of lower socioeconomic status and consuming meat was also correlated with a higher bacterial load.

The findings of this study were presented at the annual meeting held by the American Society for Microbiology. The results of this particular study are consistent with findings from previous studies showing that towels and other porous kitchen items like sponges and dish rags are breeding grounds for many bacteria that can cause foodborne illnesses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that every year foodborne diseases cause about 1 in 6 people in the United States to get sick (which is 48 million individuals). Also, 128,000 people are hospitalized, and roughly 3,000 people die from FBIs. These numbers are astonishing, but FBIs can easily be prevented.

What You Can Do

Experts recommend that you wash your kitchen towels very often, preferably every other day.

Scientists also recommend that you avoid using your kitchen towels for more than one thing. Use separate towels for cleaning, wiping utensils, and drying clean hands and clean dishes. Using one towel for all of these purposes increases your odds of getting a foodborne illness due to cross-contamination.

Another tactic to cut your risk of bacterial contamination that causes food-borne illnesses on your kitchen towels? Reduce how often you consume meat. Raw meat carries dangerous bacteria and the towels in a household where the families ate meat contained much more bacteria than those of their herbivorous counterparts. Cut back on meat and you’d be doing your health, and the health of our environment, a favor as well.

Another easy tip? Use plain, white kitchen towels and use a little bleach when you wash them to kill bacteria. While this means you won’t have the most brightly-colored, decorative kitchen accouterments, you will be saving yourself from FBIs. Remarkably, some bacteria lurking in kitchen towels could survive the heat of your washing machine and dryer.

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