24 January 2000

Keeping it clean

by Kate Melville

Whats's good and bad in household cleaning

What's the most awful domestic chore that we all love to hate; it has to be cleaning! Hygiene and infection control is important both at home and I hospitals. Scientists estimate that more than 30 million food-borne infections occur each year, resulting in more than 9,000 deaths and another 2 million hospital-acquired infections directly cause 19,000 deaths and contribute to another 58,000 annually.

So a new research study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as to whether or not you should use commercial disinfectants instead of 'natural' is something that should be of more than passing interest.

While most people use disinfectants t clean contaminated household surfaces (in the bathroom and kitchen primarily), whether this actually helps reduce common communicable illnesses amongst humans is open question.

However if you must use them, you probably should stick to commercial household disinfectants as the tests conducted at Chapel Hill showed that these were the most effective in killing disease-causing organisms.

Unfortunately natural products, that are often more environmentally friendly, were less successful in killing the same hazardous organisms.

According to Dr. William Rutala, professor of medicine at Chapel Hill, "We tested the hospital disinfectants TBQ, Vesphene and ethanol and the household disinfectants Clorox, ethanol, Mr. Clean Ultra and Lysol Disinfectant Spray and Lysol Antibacterial Kitchen Cleaner. The good news was that they were all very good, eliminating 99.9 percent or more of microbes. The bad news was that such natural products as vinegar and baking soda didn't work nearly as well."

Researchers tested the effect of select disinfectants on various microbes known to cause disease causing. The organisms included Salmonella choleraesuis , Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Staphylococcus aureus, , Escherichia coli 0157:H7, poliovirus, and vancomycin-susceptible and -resistant Enterococcus species. Microbes wre then cultured to see how many survived. While it was quite unusual to use poliovirus (know to have been almost entirely eliminated in the United States), Rutala decided to use it as it's much harder to kill than other disease-causing organisms. "We now know that kitchen and bathroom surfaces in most homes show high levels of contamination that can lead to disease and that disinfectants can eliminate most of that contamination," Rutala said. This study is very consumer friendly as it tested the claims of manufacturers in a completely independent study.

However whether the extensive use of disinfectants would make much difference in a household is still open to question. "What we don't know yet is whether disinfecting drains, taps, handles and toilet seats would actually decrease infection rates among family members. It may be that more direct contact in families such as touching, kissing, sneezing and sharing food or eating utensils plays a much bigger role in spreading infections" Rutala said.