Five Steps to a Healthier Home

Do you know that by making a few changes to your household habits you can dramatically reduce your family’s risk of disease?  The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that just seven pathogens are responsible for about 90 percent of gastrointestinal illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths.  These pathogens can cause fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and in some cases, even death.  A recent CNN article lists strategies that can help reduce household exposure to pathogens, thereby reducing your family’s risk of illness:

Five Steps to a Healthier Home
Image from CDC Website
  • Close the toilet lid before you flush.  Flushing agitates the toilet contents, forcing a fine spray of contaminated water into the air that can settle on surfaces such as toothbrushes and hand towels. Closing the lid helps confine the spray, reducing the family’s exposure to germs like norovirus.
  • Double-bag raw meats and store them on the lowest shelf of the refrigerator. The CDC estimates 48 million cases of foodborne illness in the US annually.  One problem is the spread of foodborne pathogens, such as Campylobacter, Salmonella and Listeria, through raw meat juices.  Although these pathogens are destroyed by cooking, they should be assumed to be present in all raw meats stored in the fridge.  To prevent meat juices dripping onto and contaminating foods eaten fresh, double-bag raw meats and do not store them above foods eaten fresh.
  • Leave your shoes at the door.  Our shoes provide a barrier from contact with the outside world underfoot.  Avoid transporting Toxoplama from soils or Salmonella from animal feces into your home. Leave your shoes at the door and opt for comfortable indoor slippers.
  • Wash your hands.   This is a basic step that CDC says is one of the most important things we can do to reduce our exposure to germs that can make us sick.  Wash your hands before and after handling food, after using the toilet and after changing diapers, or contacting pets or pet food.  One recent study found only five percent of individuals observed in restrooms throughout a college town exhibit hand-washing behavior that conforms to CDC recommendations to wash with clean, running water and soap for at least 20 seconds followed by rinsing and thorough drying.
  • Remember:  “Chlorine bleach is your friend.” So says Professor Douglas Powell of Kansas State University, who is quoted in the CNN article. Dilute solutions of chlorine bleach are effective against all of the seven pathogens that can wreak havoc with our health.  Many people over-estimate the amount of bleach that must be added to water to destroy common pathogens. A little goes a long way, and the new concentrated formulations require even less bleach added to water to make up a germ-busting solution (See How to Use High Strength Bleach).  The Water Quality & Health Council’s downloadable surface disinfection posters provide specific directions for mixing bleach solutions for various tasks including preventing norovirus, cleaning up after a norovirus incident, and destroying germs on daycare and food preparation surfaces.

Seven Problematic Pathogens

  • Norovirus-Very common and contagious foodborne illness; spread by contaminated food (including undercooked shellfish) or contact with contaminated surface or mucous droplets.
  • SalmonellaFound on raw poultry, ground beef and eggs and animal feces. Also found on the skin of animals, such as turtles, snakes and baby chicks.
  • Clostridium perfringens – Found on raw meat and poultry; infections are common when foods are prepared in large quantities and kept warm for a long time before serving.
  • Campylobacter– Found on raw poultry meats and unpasteurized dairy products.
  • Staphyloccus aureus– Found on foods made by hand that require no cooking, such as sliced meat, puddings, some pastries and sandwiches.
  • Toxoplasma gondii– Found on raw meats, in soils and sand boxes and cat litter boxes.
  • Listeria-Found on raw meats, produce, dairy, and may grow on refrigerated foods.

Ralph Morris, MD, MPH, is a Physician and Preventive Medicine and Public Health official living in Bemidji, MN.