Your kitchen towel might be chock full of bacteria

The very tool you use to keep your environment clean might just be stabbing you in the back, in terms of sanitation.

The towel you rely on to wipe up spills, clean up countertops and dry your dishes may, in fact, just be spreading germs around, depending on a few key factors. A new study shows that bacteria can grow to ridiculously high amounts on kitchen towels, including some that may be hazardous to food safety, like certain strains of E. coli.

“Those are bacteria that are concerns for foodborne illnesses,” said food scientist Paul Dawson to CNN. “Of course, E. coli is in the news a lot, but E. coli as a general genus and species is not a problem. But there are specific types that can cause problems, like the ones recently found on romaine lettuce.”

What were the bacteria found?

In the study, bacteria were cultured from 100 kitchen towels that had been used for a month straight. The researchers involved looked at the type and amount of bacterial growth, finding that nearly half of the towels ended up growing bacteria associated with the human body.

Of that half, about 75% grew gut bacteria like E. coli and Enterococcus. Most E. coli found in the gut is safe, but Shiga-toxin producing strains like E. coli O157:H7 can cause food poisoning.

Staphylococcus aureus grew in 14% of towel-cultivated colonies, which you may know of as staph. Some strains can produce a food poisoning-causing toxin that leads to vomiting, fever and diarrhea.

Family factors

Interestingly, the researchers found that some families’ towels would grow different bacteria based on certain factors. Larger families and families that were less well-off financially were more likely to have S. aureus on their towels. Families that ate higher amounts of meat would be more likely to have colonies of gut bacteria, likely due to cross-contamination when the meat was still raw.

Bacteria was also more likely to be found on wet towels and multi-purpose towels.

“Humid towels and multi-purpose usage of towels should be discouraged,” said lead author Susheela Biranjia-Hurdoyal. “Moist towels could be very important in promoting the growth of potential pathogens responsible for food poisoning.”

To avoid cross-contamination of pathogens in the kitchen, experts recommend swapping out towels frequently — every few days. Sanitizing sponges by microwaving them is also recommended.

For more kitchen food safety posts, check out our do-it-yourself kitchen cleaning tip sheet.

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