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E. coli bacteria (pictured) contaminates about 85% of bath sponges and cloths in South Africa. (Getty images)

Your toilet is cleaner than the kitchen - health study

Phyllis Mbanje
A new study has found that your kitchen counter is more likely to be contaminated by disease-causing bacteria than the handle of your toilet.

About 85% of bath sponges and cloths in South Africa are contaminated by the E. coli bacterium – more so than toilet handles, according to the Global Hygiene Council’s latest study released on Tuesday.

The study, which included 16 000 adults across 16 countries, noted that although people who touch toilet flush handles would be likely to have just used the toilet, only 7% of global samples from this surface were contaminated with E.coli. Other surfaces that were contaminated included kitchen taps and food preparation counters.

"The toilet is cleaner than the kitchen. We have a lot of cleaning rituals associated with the toilet because people expect the toilet to be dirty," said Kgosi Letlape from the council, which consists of a group of global hygiene experts.

E.coli bacteria are organisms associated with faecal contamination and have been known to cause stomach illnesses like diarrhoea, according to Letlape.

The high percentage of bath sponges and cloths that were contaminated and failed microbiological tests in South Africa, said Letlape, was worrying especially when 89% of South Africans believed their homes posed little to no health risks, also revealed in the survey.

"If they are unaware of where germs are in the home, then they will not know how to prevent the spread of the infection," he said.

Global difference
Globally, 83% of people are unaware of the risks and a 68% did not know that E.coli can be found in both the kitchen and the bathroom.

However, in comparison with its global counterparts, South Africa fared better in some areas and had one of the highest number of spotless or satisfactory toilet flush handles. Also, 90% of kitchen taps surveyed in the country were found to be microbiologically spotless or satisfactory.

Unlike in South Africa, where the bath sponge is the dirtiest object or surface in the home, globally the kitchen cloth or sponge was the worst with 92% of samples failing microbiological tests.

"The worst offenders were the United Kingdom and United States with 100% of kitchen cloths and sponges failing microbiological tests, closely followed by India, where 95% failed," said Letlape.

The risk of a child in Africa dying before their fifth birthday is eight times higher than it is in Europe, according to Alan Thomson, the chief operations officer for Reckitt Benkiser, which manufactures Dettol products, which provided funding towards the survey.

"In South Africa, 40 out of 1 000 children suffer from diarrhoea and it all goes back to hygiene and the options that people have to keep themselves healthy," he said.

According to Letlape hand washing with soap and clean water "remains the first line of defence against these infections which are mostly preventable".

"Families should also disinfect food and hand contact surfaces in the home."

Phyllis Mbanje is a Bhekisisa fellow

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E. colibacteria