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Weekend House Call

Aired February 8, 2004 - 08:30   ET


HOLLY FIRFER, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, and welcome to WEEKEND HOUSE CALL. Now, may not know it, but have you some unwelcome house guests and they are everywhere in your kitchen, your bathroom, on your pillows, and even in your food. We're talking about germs. If you think you know how to battle these nasty microbes. Here is CNN's Jeanne Moos to test your germ I.Q.

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Here's a quiz where a dirty mind helps, which is the dirtiest item in a house? Is it the toilet bowl, the kitchen sponge, the garbage can, the toothbrush? Forget the porno magazines.

DR. PHILIP TIERNO, NYU MEDICAL CENTER: The dirtiest of all things, bar none, is the dishrag and the sponge.


MOOS: Scream all you want, but it won't protect you from the germs lurking in your kitchen.

TIERNO: It's worse than the bathroom, because here is where you have all of your road kill. You have your chickens, your steaks.

MOOS: According to a study sponsored by Brillo, almost half of the people surveyed use the same sponge to wipe the cutting board, the counters, even the dishes. We called the Dr. Philip Tierno "Dr. Germ" because he wrote the book.

TIERNO: "The Secret Life of Germs."

MOOS: Dr. Tierno likes to demonstrate how germs are spread by using a substance you can see under a black light to mimic the way a sponge disperses microorganisms, and watch out for the drain.

TIERNO: It is loaded with bacteria.

MOOS: How often should you change your household sponge? Once a month, every three months, every week or two, when it's so filthy you can't determine its original color? The answer is, every week or two. Dr. Tierno keeps a bowl of disinfectant in his sink.

TIERNO: One ounce of Clorox in about a quart of water. Leave it here, I dip my sponge in.

MOOS: And, just when you thought it was safe to go into the bathroom, beware of the flush.

TIERNO: The water aerosolizes up to 20 feet from the point -- the center of that flush.

MOOS: So, shut the lid because who knows where those germy droplets will land which brings us to the next question. How often should you sanitize your toothbrush? Sanitize my what? Once a day, once a week, once a month? Dr. Germ says, rinse it with mouth wash or peroxide every day.

(on camera): Come one, we're not getting sick, we live like this, these people in this apartment aren't getting sick -- the people who live here...

TIERNO: Not true.

MOOS: What the problem.

TIERNO: Not true.

MOOS (voice-over): Dr. Germ say when you get a case of the runs it might be your sponge that has you running. He recommends emptying your vacuum cleaner bag once a month so the motor doesn't spew debris, though 28 percent of the those surveyed say, they don't empty until the vacuum malfunction.

Somehow I almost liked it better when the secret life of germs was kept a secret. Now I feel like the sponge is squeezing me.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


FIRFER: Now despite most people's efforts to keep their homes germ free. Many people get sick at home, not at their office or from their kid's daycare. Sixty-five percent of colds and 50 to 80 percent of food born illnesses are caught in the home. Now, as we saw in Jeanne's piece common household items are often the blame. Now, the kitchen is the most common breeding ground for germs. One studies found you are more likely to contaminate your hands while making dinner than after using a public rest room. And, kitchen sponges and rags are the worst culprits, followed by cutting boards, countertops, and faucets, and last but not least, your sink drains.

Now, if you've got questions about keeping the germs at bay, give us a call at 1-800-807-2620 or e-mail us at

Well, joining us this morning to help us understand the dangers of germs and how to fight them is Dr. Germ himself. Dr. Philip Tierno is the director of clinical micro biology and immunology at the New York University Medical Center and the author of "The Secret Life of Germs: Observations and Lessons from a Microbe Hunter."

Good morning, Doctor, thanks for being here with us.

TIERNO: Good morning. FIRFER: Well, many people may look at what we're saying and think we're being paranoid about germs. Tell us how dangerous some of the germs can actually be?

TIERNO: Well, many of the germs can cause life threatening infections. For example, in deal with salmonella, campylobacter, listeria, E. coli, 0157. Many of these particular germs can harm immunosuppressed individuals or individuals who are elderly, young children, pregnant mothers, so it's not far fetched that these germs can actually play a role in disease in the average American household.

FIRFER: OK, Doctor, we have a lot of calls and e-mails lined up, so let's get started with this e-mail first from Kathy in Arizona, who writes:

"I've heard that sponges are OK for washing dishes, but you should rinse the sponge out with bleach and hot water beforehand. Is this necessary for killing germs?"

What about, this Doctor? Do you need to disinfect before every use or after every use?

TIERNO: It's best to disinfect after every use because, especially if you are dealing with vegetable or animal matter which can contain these pathogens I mentioned. Using a little bleach and water is sufficient. Rinse it out, let it air dry. It's very important to air dry the sponge in addition to disinfecting it.

FIRFER: What does air drying do then?

TIERNO: Air drying prevents any growth of organism that -- or germs, that may come on the sponge while it is wet after you have disinfected it. And after, let's say, that disinfectant material wore off.

FIRFER: Now what about using a microwave? I've heard you can do that -- use a microwave to disinfect your sponge and other things in your kitchen. Does that really work?

TIERNO: A microwave, unfortunately has cold spots and you'll notice if you've dealt with food products that you went to heat up and you taste cold areas in that food. You can take the sponge and place it in the little bit of water. And if you do that, that water will be able to transfer the heat throughout the sponge.


TIERNO: And, that would be more efficient.

FIRFER: OK, we have a phone call from Frank in Ohio.

Good morning Frank, what's your question for Dr. Tierno?

FRANK, OHIO: Yes, I was wondering how often should we disinfect countertops in the kitchen? Daily, every other day? TIERNO: It's more task oriented. If you're cutting up your chicken and 50 to 80 percent of chickens can contain a pathogenic germ, like a salmonella or campylobacter, you should clean up after that meal preparation, both the countertops, the sink area, and most importantly the sponge or dishrag.

FIRFER: Now, Barb in Iowa has an e-mail question along those lines. She says:

"I've heard that wiping off your counters can actually spread germs instead of get rid of them. What about wiping them down with disinfectant wipes like Clorox wipes?"

Because, I guess, Doctor, if you use water you could just sort of spread those germs across the counter, which is not what you want.

TIERNO: Well, it's an important point that is raised here about cross contamination. Many individuals use the dirty sponge or dirty dash rag to wipe up a counter and then they go to the refrigerator or other appliance and they might wipe off their children's face that has become dirty for some other reason and thereby cross contaminate. So, it's important to always disinfect the sponge or dishrag after each use and the countertop should also be disinfected. Now, certainly you can use a wipe like a Clorox or Lysol wipe, that would be good.

OK, a view from Texas...

TIERNO: Keep in mind. Keep in mind...

FIRFER: Yep...

TIERNO: However, if I might add...


TIERNO: That you should leave that material wet for ten minutes because these wipes have what's called quaternary ammonium compounds in them, and that takes at least ten minutes to really effectively work. So, they should be left wet for ten minutes then you can wipe it off.

FIRFER: OK, we've got a lot more questions. We have to take a quick break. And, as you know, the kitchen may be the most germ-laden placed in house, but when we come back we're going to check out some other surprising hiding places.

Plus, what's the No. 1 thing you can do to prevent germs from spreading? It's free and takes less than a minute to do.

If you've got more questions for Dr. Germ, give us a call at 1- 800-807-2620 or e-mail us at

First before the break, let's check our "Daily Dose Health Quiz."

How much time should you spend washing your hands? You might be surprised. That answer is coming back when we come back. Stay with us.


FIRFER: Now before the break, we asked you: "How much time should you spend washing your hands?" The answer is 15 to 20 seconds. The CDC says lathering your hands with soap and warm running water for this long will help you prevent from all kinds of germs from moving around your office an your home. Now, if you don't feel like counting while washing, here's a little trick: Try singing the "Happy Birthday" song twice. That'll take you about 20 seconds.

Well, welcome back to WEEKEND HOUSE CALL, if you don't clean your hands enough you risk spreading germs by touching your eyes, nose, or your mouth. This is how people get the colds and the flu. Plus, the CDC estimates that about at least one in three people do not wash their hands after using the restroom. This opens you up for spreading even more dangerous germs.

Now, when washing your hands, the best kind of soap to use is liquid soap, because bacteria can hang out on a bar of soap. Now if soap and water are not around use alcohol based hand sanitizers. Experts say these are a great alternative, but make sure you use the alcohol based products because they're the ones that kill that bacteria and those viruses the best.

Now, we're talking to Dr. Philip Tierno, author of "The Secret Life of Germs."

And Doctor, we have a phone call from Gail in Connecticut to lead us off.

Go ahead, Gail. What's your question?

GAIL, CONNECTICUT: Good morning. I'm wondering, what are the best steps to undertake in the home when someone first becomes ill with a G.I. or severe cold or something. What are the best things to do to prevent this from spreading through the family?

FIRFER: Good question.

TIERNO: One of the best things you can do is to try to limit the individual that is ill -- his access to things that the other family members have access to, like the kitchen table, restrict him to a particular bathroom, if that's possible, try to bring him his meals or her meals, sort of away from the rest of the family members, and make sure that that person practices good hygiene, as far as when they sneeze, capture it in a napkin or tissue and make sure they wash their hands sufficiently. I think it's ideal for sanitizing to occur if that person can't be limited, for example, refresh the air with an air sanitizer likely Lysol, which has a disinfecting alcohol spray that's useful, clean surfaces and counters and door knobs so that they don't become fomites for other family members. Take common sense precautions knowing that this individual is contaminated and can contaminate the family. And, I'm sure the individual will cooperate.

FIRFER: Dr. Tierno, how often should you be disinfecting handles and door knobs, for instance? Every time they touch it? Or even if someone's not sick, should you be disinfecting them once a week, every few days?

TIERNO: Well, you can be prudent and really keep it as part of your weekly program. Let's face it, we want to be practical. The idea is if you have an ill person in the house that's the exception. You'll do it more frequently, but consider the fact that 80 percent of all infectious disease is transmitted by touch. But, there is something that you can do. You can wash your hands prior to eating or drinking anything and that in and of itself will cut down on your exposure from these fomites, like door knobs.

FIRFER: We have a phone call now from Denise in New Jersey.

Good morning, Denise. What's your question for Dr. Tierno?

DENISE, NEW JERSEY: Good morning. I have read about the horrors of the germs that reside on your toothbrush and how they are even linked to -- you know, possibly like inflammatory diseases or heart disease, and I was wondering if there's any devices that you are aware of or could recommend that actually like steam, sterilize your toothbrush or things other than what you said before about like the hydrogen peroxide cleansing?

TIERNO: Well, certainly, you can apply steam. You can put them in a dishwasher. That's an alternative, especially if the dishwasher has a germicide cycle. But, the most important thing you can do is to rinse it carefully. And using peroxide should not be underestimated as far as its efficacy in killing germs. Consider that if you do that and coupling that with air drying, keeping it, of course, in a cabinet, to prevent recontamination, let's say, by a toilet, I think that would be sufficient.

FIRFER: Good advice. OK, we'll be back with you in a moment, Dr. Tierno, we need to take a quick break. Could keeping your home too clean make you sick? We're going to get the answer to that question when we come back.

Plus, how can you keep your kitchen germ free? We're going to give you some tips after the break. Stay right here.


FIRFER: Welcome back to WEEKEND HOUSE CALL. We're talking about hidden household dangers. Now kitchen germs can be especially dangerous, 76 million Americans get some sort of food born illness every year and more than 300,000 people are hospitalized.

Now, we already told you about the nasty sponges and how important hand washing is, but there are some other steps can you take to germproof your kitchen, pretty much. Experts recommend using two cutting boards, one for raw meat and seafood, and the other one for vegetables, and cooked food, so there's no cross contamination. Make sure to scrub the boards with hot soapy water after each use and sanitize them in a dishwasher or a bleach solution periodically. Now also be sure to use a meat thermometer every time you cook meat and wash your utensils and countertops thoroughly before and after fixing a meal.

Lastly, make sure to rinse your fruits and vegetables under running water before cooking and eating them even if they say they're clean.

Now, we're talking with Dr. Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at the New York University Medical Center.

Now, Doctor, what's the number one thing people need to know about germs and cooking at home?

TIERNO: I think that you have to realize that raw foods contain germs, whether they are vegetables or whether they are meat products, and effectively cooking your food is very important and if you're going to eat vegetables raw, make sure they're properly cleaned, rinsed, and might even be useful to scald them.

FIRFER: OK, now we've got an e-mail now, from a viewer in Alabama, and I've actually wondered about this. They want know:

"Has anyone looked into the potential germs on the tops of pop- top cans, which we all place our mouths on as we drink after opening?"

So, should you take those cans you get and pour them into a glass or at least somehow sanitize the top of them? Because it's coming right from the store to your house, and -- you know, it's exposed to all kinds of things.

TIERNO: Many, manufacturers are coming out with containers or cartons to protect the tops to address the very issue, but many are not, and every time you take a can of soda or some other can you should look at the top and rinse it in running water -- warm running water and if you see debris there, you have to exert a little more friction, pressure to clean it, prior to using that can. Open it and use a straw instead of putting your lips on the material, or then pour it into a glass. Alternatively, you can use an alcohol gel in a pinch to clean the top of the can. Let it sit there for a minute or two, and then wipe it off, rinse it off, and dry it and then you can use the can.

FIRFER: OK. Angeline from Iowa writes:

"I was wondering if my family could be sick all the time because I keep my house too clean. Is there such a thing?"

Can you keep your house too clean?

TIERNO: There is no possible way that no matter what -- no matter what you do in your house that you can keep your home germ free. Germs are everywhere and using good hygiene and practicing good sanitation will still assure your contact with germs maintaining your immune status. That question was posed because of a survey that showed that one in five Americans had either allergy or asthma. And when you compare Americans to third world countries they had a lower incidence. So the question was, perhaps we're too clean. Well the answer is, in third world countries, in actuality many of the children die by the millions from diarrheal diseases and other infectious diseases. They never reach adulthood because they never get counted as having allergies or asthma.

FIRFER: Amazing.

TIERNO: So, the answer is you never can be so clean it will be harmful to you.

FIRFER: And quickly, we just have a few seconds left. Catherine in Atlanta writes:

"My dogs like to eat off the floor. How can I clean the floors properly to remove any bacteria without poisoning my pets? Do the commercially available 'steamer' appliances really do the job?"

And I know, I have animals at home, as well, and they walk on the floor then they lick their paws, they're laying on the floor. Can some of those antibacterials and those cleaning products be dangerous to animals?

TIERNO: It is possible. But the amount of residual is very little. It would be wise once you clean your floor -- your hard surface floor, to let it sit for ten minutes and then rinse it off with clean fresh water so as to cut down the amount of germicide left -- the residue.

FIRFER: Right, OK. Well, when we come back, we're going to tell you about some places you can go to get some more information on stopping germs before they make you sick. But first, here's a look at some of this week's medical headlines in today's "For Your Health."


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The American Heart Association launched the "Go Red for Women" campaign this week in an effort to increase the awareness of heart disease, the number one killer of women. The campaign will work to provide education on healthy eating, exercising, quitting smoking, and controlling blood pressure.

Also, a study on hormone replacement therapy in Sweden was stopped after researchers claimed it posed an unnecessary risk to patients with a history of breast cancer. This study was looking at safety of hormone replacement therapy for treating menopausal symptoms in previous breast cancer patients.



FIRFER: For more information on keeping germs out of your home, go to the CDC's "germstopper" Web site at And for some food safety tips click on, that's the site for the partnership for food safety education.

Well, that's all we have time for today, Dr. Philip Tierno, we appreciate your time, and as always "The Secret Life of Germs," some good information, the book you have out now. We appreciate you being here with us.

Thank you, my pleasure.

Thank you, we'll all stay safe.

And thank you to all of you for your e-mails and your phone calls. Make sure to watch every Saturday and Sunday at 8:30 a.m. Eastern, when we ask the experts your questions on WEEKEND HOUSE CALL.

We're so glad you were with us this morning. I'm Holly Firfer. "CNN Sunday Morning" continues, right now.


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