Emmanuel G Escobar
And 5 other health risks.
Most of our human body is covered in microbes—sorry germophobes. In fact, several of these microbes are good for us, and play very important roles in our organism. You might frequently hear that we have good gut bacteria that keep our intestines healthy, but did you know that Staphylococcus aureus are part of our body’s microbiota? This little guy is however most commonly associated with MRSA, which corresponds to specific strains of S. aureus that are resistant to antibiotics. This is something that we can expect in a world with five million trillion trillion bacteria (even Microsoft Word cannot handle this number and suggests to delete the repeated word).
Think about it: the air that we breathe, the surfaces that we touch or the water that we drink, all have these microscopic travellers. On a normal day, this is something that we might don’t think about. If someone coughs in their hand and then reaches out to greet you, then you might be more receptive to how germs travel from host to host. But what about those everyday things that we do that might be harnessing the health risks of everyday microbes?
(1) Killer Ducks (sorry, anatidaephobics)
An aggressive, blood thirsty duck is hard to imagine when ducks do not have teeth or anything quite so sharp or deadly on their bodies. But no, you misunderstand me. I am not talking about those ducks on the street or in your nearest pond that might only be more aggressive during spring as their offspring hatch. I’m referring here to rubber duckies. These affectionate bath toys are the source of microbes that may potentially cause health problems. A study in 2018 gave an insight on how bath toys were the perfect surfaces for bacteria proliferation, when comparing to the concentration of bacteria found in clean vs dirty water. Not to mention bathrooms are usually moist and hot environments, which make for perfect habitats for certain microbiota. If fancy having a bath and need to bring your favourite bath toy, then make sure you dry it after use.
(2) Washing chicken.
Okay, hear me out. The first thing we learn about cooking chicken is washing it because of potential health risks, including Salmonella, which is the most common cause of food poisoning. So, advising that it is bad to wash chicken might sound counter-intuitive. The problem here is how the chicken is washed. If it is washed under the tap, then water bounces back from the surface of the chicken at very high speeds, and it is these water droplets that can be carrying pathogens. This would particularly cause a greater risk if dishes are drying on a nearby rack and are within the splash zone. But ultimately, because of the speed of the droplets, they would be able to travel longer distances. So next time you cook chicken, remember to wash it with a not so powerful stream of water and keep your surfaces clean between use.
As you may have realised, there is a consistent theme here: water. Water offers a great breeding environment for microbes, as well as other disease-causing organisms, such as mosquitoes. Remember to clear out any pools of water, especially as we enter warmer Spring weather. But it’s not only visible pools of water, it is about the moisture that forms in flats and houses. Excess moisture in the air promotes the growth of mould—a type of fungus—and while this most frequently occurs in bathrooms, it can occur on any wall in your home. It can be that you don’t display any health symptoms, but these organisms that cause respiratory problems, mainly because of the production of spores which travel in the air and can therefore be breathed. Not everyone is susceptible to this, but the risks are greater for infants, the elderly and those who suffer for respiratory problems such as asthma. It is important that even if you don’t suffer these symptoms that you don’t ignore the mould growth and clean it. To minimise further outbreaks, keep rooms well ventilated.
Hold on. Towels typically dry something after it has been cleaned: after we shower, wash our hands or wash dishes. Yes, but as mentioned before, towels will collect water over time and recalling from what we’ve talked about before, in short, they will either need to be washed or disposed. The towels for personal use will collect dead skin cells over time, but those which can cause more health problems are kitchen towels with for multiple purpose use. It happens to all of us eventually: we have a few people over for a social evening at the house and someone dries their hands with our dish-only drying towel! As with anything else, it is about the transfer of bacteria and growth of bacteria on surfaces that warrants good practice when using these items. It is not to say that the health risks associated with these towels are severe, but it is often good to keep a look out for towels or cloths that have been sitting in a corner of the kitchen, and these, over time, will be habitats for microbes.
(5) Kitchen sponges.
So, while we are still in the kitchen, there’s something else apart from towels and cloths that should be mentioned: kitchen sponges. By this time, you should be an expert in waterborne diseases and pathogens and recognise that sponges could be the worst of the them all on this list. They have absorbent features—it would be quite amusing for a sponge to not absorb water. I have two sponges next to the kitchen sink, one which is used for washing the dishes and the other for wiping the counters. Typically, the one for wiping is left on the side and every time something is washed, water that sprays around is absorbed by it. Without realising, and quite quickly, the sponge starts to get mouldy.
(6) Our phones.
Just when you thought that you had gotten a feel of my list and could anticipate what I would say next. Our phones are great devices. They help us communicate with the people we care about, connect to the rest of the world and have all information at the tip of our fingers. It is the type of device that would marvel any time traveller, but if you were to spontaneously get transported to the middle ages, you would immediately be labelled as a witch. But as we become more dependent on the capabilities of these devices, the more time we spend using them. What we don’t know yet is how phone screen time really affects us. We are learning more about how phones affect our lives, but it is not only the technology that might be affecting our brains, it is the content that we can so easily find with our phones. And it about the controls over what can be accessed and how we teach others to use their phones responsibly.