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Can your counters, faucets, & toilets help you avoid the flu?

Can your counters, faucets, & toilets help you avoid the flu?
Dual vanities provide extra space.
[With Zika and other viruses in the news, we asked Boyce to investigate home products that might be a first line of defense -- Ed.]

Several recently launched products aim to kill viruses and bacteria in the home. Their commendable goal: Make it less likely families pass around a cold, the flu, or something more serious, like e-Coli or Ebola. How effective are these products at preventing family illness? Are there other personal hygiene actions you might take at home that would work even better? And what could you add to your home to make it as germ-free as possible? We decided to take these questions right to the expert, Dr. Charles Gerba, aka Dr. Germ, a professor in the Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona. Gerba, an internationally recognized microbiologist, often goes door to door with his team of researchers to test homes for germ-laden surfaces.

Paint that kills viruses and bacteria
Sherwin Williams recently debuted an anti-microbial paint that kills viruses and bacteria within two hours of application and remains effective for four years. Here's a look a some of the 611 colors in their Paint Shield Anti-Microbial Interior Latex paint line.

It turns out Gerba tested the paint in a hospital, coating one wall with Paint Shield and leaving a control wall alone.
“It uses the same agent as Lysol,” he says, “but they found a way to bind it to surfaces. When we tested, there was a lot less bacteria on the wall we painted. A lot of people must enter the hospital drunk and drag their hands along the wall.”

Toilets that flush with the wave of a hand
Gerba built his early reputation on research that showed flushing toilets can spread fecal matter up to three feet from the bowl. He likes the idea of waving a hand to flush the toilet rather than relying on the automatic-flushing variety found in airports. “I’ll wipe my butt and the toilet will go off,” says Gerba of the automatic type, adding that you should keep your toothbrush three feet away from the toilet so that it doesn’t get hit by spray. Touchless toilets are a good idea, he says, because “handles do get contaminated.” 

Here's one from Kohler, the Sans Souci TM.

Countertops with anti-microbial protection
At this year’s Kitchen & Bath show Wilsonart debuted laminate countertops with an antimicrobial agent that protects the surface from bacteria, mold, and mildew.

Above are some of the patterns in this line. The countertops rely on a positive charge from silver that kills microbes. “Silver’s been used since Greek times,” says Gerba. “The Greeks, of course, didn’t know it killed bacteria and viruses. But they knew people wouldn’t get as ill if you used silver chalices.“ The countertops don’t kill microbes as quickly as chlorine, which acts in 30 seconds. “A lot of people look at it as a secondary barrier -- it gets all the spots you missed. The new surface is kind of a silver bullet in a way.”

Cabinets that open with the push of an elbow
Several companies, including Anvil Motion, now make cabinets, drawers, and garbage cans that open with wave of a hand, the push of an elbow, or the step of a foot. Gerba likes the idea of a hands-free kitchen. “I think it’s a good idea to touch as little as possible in the kitchen,” he says, adding that the “magic” cabinets might also make sense for ergonomic reasons. As people age, using cabinet pulls becomes more difficult.

Touchless kitchen and bath faucets
Nearly every faucet company now makes one that operates with the wave of a hand. The latest versions, with a sensor on the top, won’t go on accidentally when you try to wash a big pot.

Here's one from American Standard.

Faucets, whether in the kitchen or the bath, can be a major source of germs. When you turn on the water to wash your hands, it contaminates the faucet. Then after your hands are presumably clean, you touch the faucet again and reintroduce the germs. “You don’t want to touch the faucet when your hands could be infected,” says Gerba. “If you touch a stainless steel surface, you’ll pick up 50 percent of the viruses and bacteria that are there. The only thing that beats it is acrylic.”

Antimicrobial copper
It turns out that copper has strong anitmicrobial properties. According to the website antimibrobialcopper.org/uk: "Antimicrobial copper rapidly inactivates norovirus and other non-enveloped viruses, including adenovirus and rotavirus. Thus the hierarchy of efficacy suggests antimicrobial copper may be effective against Zika."

Rocky Mountain Hardware offers various copper products, like those shown here, made with Cuvero antimicrobial copper.

Vacuum cleaners that kill bacteria

Several vacuum cleaners on the market use ultraviolet light to kill germs as you vacuum. Gerba’s lab tested them and found they work pretty well. They eliminated most fecal bacteria he could find on carpet. “Dogs use (carpets) it to scratch their hemorrhoids, so there’s fecal bacterial,” he says. “But everything accumulates in the carpet, especially food particles. I think they grow a little there.” It would make sense to use the same vacuum on the couch and cushions. Gerba’s early data shows that they are a bigger source of germs than the carpet or even the remote.

Multiple kitchen cutting boards
Speaking of germ magnets, Gerba has found in studies that cutting boards have 200 times more fecal bacteria than toilet seats, which fortunately get cleaned more often. “It’s safer to make a salad on a toilet seat,” he says, half-jokingly. “Not that I’m recommending making a salad on a toilet seat.” The scientist recommends having two cutting boards – one for meats, the other for vegetables – and cleaning them in the dishwasher with a disinfectant after each use. If you use the same cutting board for hamburger and cucumbers, “you have a recipe for a salmonella salad.”

Anti-microbial sponges
The only bigger source of germs in the kitchen may be sponges. Gerba’s studies show they are the most germ-laden items  in your house. In a door-to-door study, he found that 15 percent of sponges contained salmonella. Some anti-microbial sponges have hit the market, but Gerba wishes they worked better. He recommends regularly cleaning sponges in the dishwasher or the putting them in the microwave for 30 seconds.

Hand sanitizers for the home
Hand sanitizers are now widely available, but they are usually found in the bathroom. Gerba would put one by the door and make children use it when they enter the house. Giving it a bubble gum aroma might get it used more often.   Two years ago, Gerba and his crew did an experiment; they put an innocuous virus on a young child’s hand. “Within four hours, it was on every surface and everyone’s hands. Things move fast within a home. Kids put their hands on everything. They move everything around.” Having your children wash their hands when they get home from school can reduce your chance of getting sick by 30 percent. Influenza and flu viruses tend to land on surfaces. From there they get onto your hands and then in your eyes or nose.

Paper towel dispensers in the kitchen – and bath
The problem with hand towels, and dishcloths, is that in most cases your hands aren’t completely clean after you wash them. Gerba recommends using paper towels to wipe your hands. “If you dry your face with a hand towel after using the sink, you could get more bacteria on your face from the towel than putting your head in the toilet.“

Boyce Thompson is writer, speaker, consultant and author of 
The New New Home.

Can your counters, faucets, & toilets help you avoid the flu? Inspiration

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