Wellness

The germiest spots in your kitchen --  where you least expect them

May 3, 2013 at 4:51 AM ET

Kitchen sinks can contain hidden germs.
AnikaSalsera / Featurepics.com
Kitchen sinks can contain hidden germs -- but they're not the worst place in your cooking space.

If you're a smoothie lover, take note. Eight spots in your kitchen -- including the indispensable blender and a few other unexpected areas -- may be alive with foodborne pathogens potent enough to sicken you and your family, a new study from a leading safety organization has found.

Blenders and can openers were tainted with traces of E.coli, and salmonella, according to swab samples from 20 home kitchens tested by NFS International, a global health and safety organization originally known as the National Sanitation Foundation. Rubber spatulas were covered with E. coli, yeast and mold. Nasty bugs were even found inside the refrigerator vegetable drawers. (Updated: An earlier version of this story identified blenders and can openers as tainted with listeria andrubber spatulas as contaminated with salmonella and listeria.)

The top germiest spot was the innocent-looking refrigerator water dispenser.

That dispenser lever was just one of the 42 percent of kitchen surfaces on which “concerning levels” yeast or mold were found to be coating the surface, said Lisa Yakas, a microbiologist at NSF International. Mold and yeast can cause allergic reactions and respiratory ailments in some people.

The blender was one of the most surprising germ factories. Most people may think they're fine if they wash out the glass container, but that's not the problem.

“Smoothies are popular these days,” Yakas said. “We found people don’t take their blenders apart when they wash them. They just take the lid off and put the whole jar and blade assembly together in the dishwasher. Some people can’t get that blade unscrewed any more because it’s so caked together."

Another dirty area: the freezer ice maker.

“It’s a case of what most people perceive to be clean," said Yakas. "Most people think they’re putting a clean glass or clean cup up there. But it’s a place people can touch. It’s a place people don’t wash frequently so there can be (germ) buildup over time.”

Salmonella --which can cause diarrhea, fever and even death for at-risk populations -- was detected in 36 percent of the kitchen crannies swabbed, including food-storage containers with rubber seals. (Updated: An earlier version of this storysaid salmonella was found on 25 percent of kitchen crannies swabbed.)

While some of these microorganisms are harmless to physically robust people, "some strains are very virulent and can cause serious illness in otherwise healthy adults and children,” said Allison Aiello, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health.

Children, pregnant women, seniors and people with compromised immune systems are most at risk. In rare cases, pathogens such as listeria can be fatal.

Once those bugs take root in a drawer or on an appliance, their life spans can vary widely depending on the temperature, humidity and surface type, Aiello added. For example, E.coli 0157 “could survive for more than 28 days at both fridge temp and room temp on stainless steel” but, on copper, that same germ type dies in 90 to 270 minutes.

E.coli -- strains of which can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infections and pneumonia -- also was found by the NSF swabs on one quarter of the spots checked.

Blenders and two-piece spatulas should be disassembled before heading into power dishwashers or in suds-filled sinks. Simple soap-and-water rubdowns usually rid kitchen surfaces of germs. Many refrigerator manufacturers recommend using a vinegar-water mix to clean water dispensers and ice makers.

“The thing to remember is: You can’t sterilize a dirty surface,” Yakas said. “Just make sure you get a cleaning routine in place so they don’t get a bio-film buildup where these (germs have a place to) stick and grab onto.”

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