Here are six common household activities that may be making you sick.
1. Using a Sponge
The dirtiest room in everybody's home is the kitchen, says Phillip Tierno, PhD, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at the New York University Langone Medical Center and author of The Secret Life of Germs. "That's because we deal with dead animal carcasses on our countertops and in the sink." Raw meat can carry E. coli and salmonella, among other viruses and bacteria.
Most people clean their countertops and table after a meal with the one tool found in almost all kitchens: the sponge. In addition to sopping up liquids and other messes, the kitchen sponge commonly carries E. coli and fecal bacteria, as well as many other microbes. "It's the single dirtiest thing in your kitchen, along with a dishrag," says Tierno.
Ironically, the more you attempt to clean your countertops with a sponge, the more germs you're spreading around. "People leave [the sponge] growing and it becomes teaming with [millions of] bacteria, and that can make you sick and become a reservoir of other organisms that you cross-contaminate your countertops with, your refrigerator, and other appliances in the kitchen," Tierno explains.
Solution: Tierno suggests dipping sponges into a solution of bleach and water before wiping down surfaces. "That is the best and cheapest germicide money can buy -- less than a penny to make the solution -- so that you can clean your countertops, cutting boards, dishrags, or sponges after each meal preparation."
In addition, once you've used your sponge, be sure to let it air-dry. Dryness kills off organisms. Another way to keep bacteria from building up in your sponge is to microwave it for one to two minutes each week. "Put a little water in a dish and put the sponge in that," Tierno advises. "That will boil and distribute the heat evenly [throughout the sponge] and kill the bacteria."
Conventional vacuum cleaners are intended to pick up and retain big pieces of dirt, like the dust bunnies we see floating about on our floors. But it's the tiny dust particles that pass right through the porous vacuum bags and up into the air. So, while our floors may look cleaner after running a vacuum over them, plenty of dust, which can exacerbate allergies and asthma, remains.
Pet allergens and indoor dust, which contains the highest concentrations of hazardous materials like heavy metals, lead, pesticides, and other chemicals, are found in higher concentrations in the smallest particles of the dust, explains David MacIntosh, MD. He is principal scientist at Environmental Health & Engineering (EH&E), an environmental consulting and engineering services firm based in Needham, Mass.
"The everyday habit of cleaning with a conventional vacuum cleaner results in a burst of particles in the air and then they settle back down over the course of hours," says MacIntosh.
Solution: Look for a vacuum cleaner with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. Unlike those in conventional vacuums, HEPA filters are able to retain the small particles and prevent them from passing through and contaminating the air you breathe in your home.
3. Sleeping With Pillows and a Mattress
The average person sheds about 1.5 million skin cells per hour and perspires one quart every day even while doing nothing, says Tierno. The skin cells accumulate in our pillows and mattresses and dust mites grow and settle.
If that's not gross enough for you, Tierno explains that a mattress doubles in weight every 10 years because of the accumulation of human hair, bodily secretions, animal hair and dander, fungal mold and spores, bacteria, chemicals, dust, lint, fibers, dust mites, insect parts, and a variety of particulates, including dust mite feces. After five years, 10% of the weight of a pillow is dust mites. This is what you're inhaling while you sleep.
"What you're sleeping on can exacerbate your allergies or your asthma," says Tierno.
Solution: Cover your mattress, box springs, and pillows with impervious outer covers.
"Allergy-proof coverings seal the mattress and pillow, preventing anything from getting in or out, which protects you," Tierno says. He also suggests that you wash your sheets weekly in hot water. Make sure the temperature range of the water is between 130 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Grilling Meat
So much for the summertime staple: Barbecuing meat creates the cancer-causing compounds polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). When fat drips from the meat onto the hot grill, catches fire, and produces smoke, PAHs form. That's what's contained in that delicious-looking charred mark we all look for on our burger. HCAs form when meat is cooked at a high temperature, which can occur during an indoor cooking process as well.
Solution: "Limiting your outdoor cooking, using tin foil, or microwaving the meat first is a sensible precaution," says Michael Thun, MD. He is emeritus vice president for epidemiology and surveillance research with the American Cancer Society.
Wrapping meat in foil with holes poked in it allows fat to drip off, but limits the amount of fat that hits the flames and comes back onto the meat, Thun tells WebMD. Some of the excess fat can also be eliminated by first microwaving meat and choosing cuts of meat that are leaner.
5. Opening Your Windows
When the weather turns nice, many of us throw open our windows to breath in the fresh spring air. But that may be an unhealthy move, considering the combination of seasonal allergies and poor air quality of many cities throughout the U.S. According to a recent report by the American Lung Association, 60% of Americans are breathing unhealthy air. And the pollution inside our homes may be worse than outdoors. The Environmental Protection Agency lists poor indoor air quality as the fourth largest environmental threat to our country. Bacteria, molds, mildew, tobacco smoke, viruses, animal dander, house dust mites, and pollen are among the most common household pollutants.
Solution: Shut the windows and run the air conditioner. All air-conditioning systems have a filter that protects the mechanical equipment and keeps them clean of debris.
"Pollen and mold spores that have made their way indoors will be run through the air-conditioning system and taken out of the air as they go through the duct work," MacIntosh says.
But much like with the vacuum cleaner, these filters can only capture the largest particles. "The conventional filters just pick up big things, such as hair or cob webs," says MacIntosh. "Filters intended to remove the inhalable particles, which are very small, exist on the market and some are very effective."
They may also be worth the investment. A recent study published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that cleaner air might add as much as five months to a person's life.
Tierno says that air purification systems are important, particularly in a bedroom where bacteria are teaming.
6. Sitting in Front of the TV
Sitting in front of the television has become a national pastime and one of our least healthy behaviors, particularly because we often do it while snacking on food that is high in calories.
"When you're sitting there in a trance, you can really pack on some calories," says Thun. "Today, more than one-third of the U.S. population qualifies as obese and one-third qualifies as overweight. Thirteen million Americans are morbidly obese."
Excess body weight puts us at greater risk for heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and a host of other diseases, Thun says. "That poses a greater health risk than the toxic cleansers under our sinks."
Solution: Turn off the TV, put away the bag of chips, and go for a walk.