Could your dish towel be making you sick?

Research shows a link between dish cloths, towels and foodborne illness.

Could your dish towel be making you sick? It could be possible. Charles P. Gerba, Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona and his research team published the article “Bacterial Occurrence in Kitchen Hand Towels” in the September-October 2014 issue of Food Protection Trends. The research involved the collection of 82 used cloth dishtowels from random households in the cities of Chicago, IL, New Orleans, LA, Orlando, FL, Tucson, AZ and Toronto. The research team asked questions about the cloth dishtowels such as:

  • How old was the towel?
  • When was the last time the towel was washed?
  • How often during the month was the dishtowel washed?
  • How often and how was the dishtowel used?

The research team cultured the cloth dishtowels for pathogens. From the cultures it was determined that 89 percent of the dishtowels had fecal coliforms on them. E.coli contaminated 25.6 percent of the towels. The research also demonstrated that there was a potential for cross-contamination of foodborne illness pathogens when the cloth dishtowels were used.

So what does this mean? It means that when used, the cloth kitchen dishtowel can be a source of foodborne illness pathogens.

When people dry their hands on dish towels after using the bathroom, the dishtowel becomes a source of foodborne illness pathogens. If that dish towel is then used to dry dishes, the dishes become contaminated with the pathogens, thus spreading the germs, potentially making people in the household sick.

How can this cycle be stopped? Michigan State University Extension advises that there should be towels for drying hands in the bathroom. There should also be disposable hand towels or designated hand towels used for washing hands in the kitchen. Dishes should be allowed to air dry, if there is not an automatic dishwasher in the household. Food preparation surfaces should be washed, rinsed, sanitized and air dried. Never use a cloth dish towel to dry a food preparation surface; this could result in cross-contamination.

The potential for contamination should also be considered when hand washing dishes with a sponge or dish cloth. Unless a fresh, clean dish cloth or sponge is used each time dishes are hand washed, there is the potential for foodborne illness pathogens to spread. Another option is for the sponge or dish cloth to be rinsed in a sanitizing solution after each use and allowed to air dry.

Consider using disposable paper towel to clean messes in the kitchen. If a cloth towel is used during clean up, it should be washed in hot soapy water, sanitized and dried before it is used again.

So – is your cloth dish towel making you and your family sick? It could unless you are taking precautions to avoid contamination.

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