“You should not become hysteric and afraid of your kitchen sponge now,” said Dr. Egert in our original interview. Even sterile environments can make a person ill, he added. “But if you’re already ill or have ill people at home, you should be more careful.”
And that brings us to talking about risk, which the study was not designed to assess.
Kitchens are hot spots for cross-contamination, and immune systems differ. You could just as easily contract an illness from poorly prepared food or your cellphone as you could from a dirty sponge, many experts say. And two bodies’ responses to the same pathogen can differ, just like a pothole might damage one car but not another, said Kevin Sauer of Kansas State University, who has studied cross-contamination in the kitchen.
But if you’re still worried, here are three tips from Solveig Langsrud, a microbiologist at Nofima, an applied research institution in Norway, who has examined how different hygiene procedures can reduce bacterial contamination in kitchens.
Don’t feed your sponge with dangerous bacteria
Don’t use your sponge to scrub off chunky food debris or wipe up fresh meat juices, dirt from fruits and veggies, unpasteurized milk stuff, vomit or your pet’s droppings. Just use a paper towel, cleanser or running water. Keep sick people away from food preparation areas. (And for those who asked, a vegan kitchen full of raw vegetables is not immune.)
To avoid cross-contamination, wash your hands (properly) and give different sponges their own jobs — like cleaning only your counter, floor or dishes. A proper handwashing means removing jewelry and using soapy water for 20 seconds before drying with a clean towel, said Argyris Magoulas, an information specialist at the Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education at the U.S.D.A. Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Keep your sponge clean
Dr. Langsrud says that you should wash your sponge after each use, which doesn’t quite jibe with Dr. Egert’s study. But Dr. Egert doesn’t think his donors gave their sponges a correct washing. With some effort, you can disinfect your sponges and get rid of most of their bacteria, although this may not be practical for many of us.
In a 2008 study, Manan Sharma, a microbiologist who studies foodborne pathogens with the U.S.D.A., and his colleagues soaked sponges in ground beef at room temperature for two days to get them extra bacteria-y and then compared common cleaning methods. He found that…