Disgusting bacteria hiding in household sponges

Posted at 8:22 AM, Feb 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-14 08:22:38-05

It’s a typical household item you likely don’t think twice about: sponges. Whether they’re in the kitchen, bathroom or anywhere else in the house they can pose a threat if they’re too old.

This past week 7 Action News set out to compare household cleaners: organic versus bleach-based. Instead, we stumbled into results that even surprised the doctors at Henry Ford Hospital that helped test our samples.

It’s flu season, and it’s important to keep things clean in our homes to cut down on the spread of bacteria and germs. That’s why we swabbed various spots throughout Broadcast House (our studio) to determine how dirty they were before cleaning, and after with both types of cleaners. In the process, we unknowingly added an extra variable to the experiment: the bleach-based cleaner comes on a wipe, while we used a sponge that was in our kitchen to test the organic cleaner.

When the results came back from Henry Ford’s labs we ended up with more germs post-cleaning with the sponge than we did before we even cleaned.

“It’s what’s growing on this plate that’s of most concern,” said Bob Tibbetts, the Associate Director of Microbiology at Henry Ford Hospital. “It holds bacteria we find in sewage and stool.”

Dr. Tibbetts explained that the bacteria found on cultures that had been produced in lab conditions over a four day span, using samples collected by 7 Action News, were pretty shocking. The words sewage and stool may be a dead giveaway, but he noted that the types of bacteria he was finding was more typical to find as hospital infections.

“This can cause very, very serious infections,” said Dr. Tibbetts. “We’re talking about infections from gastrointestinal diseases to respiratory infections. They can be difficult to treat too.”

While we can’t come to a conclusion about what cleaner worked best, Dr. Tibbetts said this is an eye-opening result that should serve as a reminder to toss old sponges out immediately.

Katherine Reyes, the Medical Director of Infection Prevention at Henry Ford Hospital, agreed but added that the public needs to understand the difference between cleaning and disinfecting. The two aren’t mutually exclusive, and the best practice is to clean and disinfect, not one or the other.

Cleaning with soap and water removes most germs, while disinfecting kills the remaining germs. Dr. Reyes told 7 Action News it’s also important to read labels as some disinfectants need to stay wet on a surface for several minutes before it accomplishes the intended goal.

“Flat surfaces actually prolong the growth of things like cold viruses,” said Dr. Reyes. “You also need to be mindful of what germs we are trying to kill. Flu viruses can last 24 hours. Certain viruses, like those that cause vomiting, can last longer while some bacteria in stool can last weeks or months.”