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How clean is clean enough?

Cleaning and MaintenanceImage Credit: Supplied

A recent study on home hygiene has experts calling for better education on how to keep homes free from germs and bacteria and the potential health risks they come with. The call demands more urgency in Dubai, as the emirate had the lowest rating in the survey.

The Home Truths Swabbing Study, conducted by Dettol with the support of the Global and the Arab Hygiene Councils, looked at 100 homes across five countries, sampling 20 homes from one city in each country: Dubai, Delhi, Johannesburg, New York and London. The objective was to identify levels of potentially harmful bacteria present on a range of household items and surfaces in typical family homes across the world. A questionnaire was also distributed to understand each household's cleaning habits.

The study showed that 68 per cent of the samples taken from the UAE failed the microbiological tests, compared with 66 per cent in India, 46 per cent in the UK, 34 per cent in the US and 23 per cent in South Africa.

"When you take a swab from a surface, there's a very slight contamination of bacteria that can be accepted," explains Dr Muhammad Halwani, a consultant on infection control and hospital epidemiology in Saudi Arabia and a member of the Arab Hygiene Council. "But when you take a speci- men from any surface in the house and you find it heavily contaminated, then you say it's unsatisfactory .”

The most heavily contaminated samples were those taken from kitchens and bathrooms, he says. Three main types of bacteria were found: Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause food poisoning if ingested or skin infection, especially if in contact with broken or wounded skin; E. coli, which can cause diarrhea; and Pseudomanis, an environmental bacteria that is generally harmless unless it enters the blood stream.

In the bathroom, Items with high contamination were body sponges and cleaning flannels, Dr Halwani says, adding that body sponges and flannels must be replaced with new ones twice a week. or washed at least once a week at a temperature of at least 60 degrees Celsius. However, only a fifth of respondents in Dubai said they clean or change the items at least two to three times a week, 35 per cent said they do it once a week, and 40 per cent do it once a month. In addition, only 10 per cent of respondents said they machine-wash these items at the required temperature.

Mixed nationalities
Dubai's cosmopolitan nature could be attributed to the results, as the randomly sampled homes belonged to people of mixed nationalities, Dr Halwani says.

"It would be unfair to generalise the results to the entire UAE, as the samples were specifically taken from Dubai, which is home to people of many different backgrounds and cultures," he said. Another consideration, Dr Halwani says, is the popular use of maids in the region.

"In other countries people don't have maids, but in the Gulf even small and low-budget families may have them," he says. "These maids come from different countries. Some are poor and uneducated, others may not have a good standard of living. This might actually play a big role in our findings."

This makes it crucial that people are involved in every step of the cleaning process and maids are trained appropriately, Dr Halwani points out. Cross-contamination, where surfaces and cleaning items are used for multiple purposes, is the most common problem.

"What will happen is you'll just pick up the germs and bacteria and spread them to other areas of the home," Dr Halwani explains. “All items in the kitchen should be dedicated to the kitchen, the same with the other areas."

What's interesting is that although some items appear visually clean, they are actually not.

"This goes to show that just because an item or surface looks clean, it does not mean it really is," he says. “These organisms are microscopic and cannot be seen with the naked eye."

Figures from the Emirates Allergy and Respiratory Society show that 13 per cent of adults in the UAE suffer from asthma, and between 10 and 12 per cent of adults and 20 and 25 per cent of children suffer from allergic rhinitis. The main triggers? Dust and smoke.

"Once you put someone with the genetic predisposition in an unsuitable environment, such as a high-dust area, they will develop an allergy," says Dr Bassam Mahboub, head of the society. "It is important that people living with these allergies limit the use of carpets and rugs in their homes and keep curtains and bed linens clean." 

Carpets should be vacuum-cleaned on a daily basis and deep cleaning must be done at least once a month. This is especially important in homes with young children who spend a lot of time on the floor, says Dr Mahboub.

In addition, bed linen should be washed weekly at temperatures of at least 60 degrees Celsius. Dust mite-resistant mattress and pillow protectors can also be used. However, doctors say the proven effectiveness of such products are limited and that maintaining good hygiene habits is more important.

They're not bugs
Dust mites, which are microscopic in size and cannot be seen with the naked eye, must not be confused with bed bugs, explains Minaz lmran from HygieneTek Services, a anti-allergen service company based in Dubai.

"Bed bugs are insects, whereas dust mites are microscopic organisms, similar to germs and bacteria," she says. "When we sleep, we shed skin cells, which penetrate deep into the mattress. The dust mites then feed on our dead skin cells, grow in number and lay out waste material. This waste material has a chemical compound that is responsible for dust allergy symptoms, such as watery eyes, itching and sneezing."

An average mattress contains about a million dust mites. These organisms can also be found on sofas, curtains and other furniture.

The combination of dust and humidity in the UAE's climate allows dust to easily settle in fabric and furniture, Minaz explains. And although many detergents are available, some individuals may also be allergic to the chemicals used in those products. A chemical-free option is also available using a high-suction vacuum cleaner specially designed to capture dust mites and other microscopic particles.

"The device removes the particles without damaging or affecting the fabric on mattresses and sofas and can clean up to 12 inches deep," Minaz says. "You can use a vacuum cleaner on a daily basis, but the average vacuum cleaner only cleans the surface and doesn't capture what's hiding in the depths."

Pool tips
Don’t swim with the germs
Water can easily be contaminated with many types of bacteria and parasites. Microorganisms found in swimming pools include cryptosporidium and E. coli, both of which can cause vomiting and diarrhea; giardia, a parasite that causes chronic diarrhea and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is responsible for skin and ear infections.

The best way to protect the pool is by using a protective cover, in addition to water filtration and chlorination. Chlorine is still the best compound that is used to disinfect the pool's water, says Dr Mohammad Halwani, a consultant in infection control and hospital epidemiology in Saudi Arabia and member of the Arab Hygiene Council.

"Chlorination of a private pool's water should be done at least twice weekly. Three times a week is even better," he says. “Since chlorine is highly toxic, it can be a bit harsh on the skin, so no one should swim in the water at least three hours after treatment."

To ensure that pools are safe and completely clean, water in private pools should be changed once a year and the pool cleaned with a detergent in between changes. Filters, however, should be running continuously."

Using different brushes, the same process can be applied on sofas, curtains and carpets, Minaz says. Some fabrics, such as leather, can prevent dust particles from penetrating deep into furniture, although they can still hide in folds and bends. Checking the air ducts is also important, lmran says. "With the air conditioning on in many homes almost around the clock in the UAE, this could be a main source of air contamination."

Get rid of pests
Many people are aware of what may be lurking behind their closets, deep beneath their drawers or even in their own bed.

Dmesh Ramachandran, technical manager of National Pest ControL explains that bugs and insects are mainly attracted to three things: food, water and shelter. By denying these three elements, Ramachandran says people will have less problems dealing with house pests.

"It all goes back to basics,'' he says. "Keep food properly stored and use bin liners for the garbage bins and discard them regularly. Don't keep them for long to avoid attracting unwanted pests and

letting them breed."

The company has identified more than 100 pests found on properties and the list continues to grow. Among the most common pests found in homes are cockroaches and ants.

Pests find their way into a property through a number of ways, including open doors, open windows and gaps around utility pipes entering the building, Ramachandran says.

"These are simple things people can look out for and seal - cracks and crevices," he says. "For example, when you have an electric socket in a wall you might see some gaps that are not filled up - that could be a crevice. They are looking for small and dark places, most importantly, unnoticed tiny cracks.”

Samsun ants and fire ants, commonly found in homes, are among the more dangerous ant species because of their ability to sting their prey. Samsun ants are black in colour and about 6mm in size, while fire ants have reddish-brown colour and are only about 2mm in size.

"They don't hunt people unless they are disturbed, but they can give painful stings as a defence  mechanism and sometimes may kill," says Ramachandran. "Some people may have an anaphylactic reaction to their venom and need immediate medical attention. These people may experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, rapid heart beat and an itchy rash."

These ants are commonly found in open spaces, including walkways, pathways and children's play areas.

Another growing problem in the UAE, Ramachandran says, is the presence of bedbugs in homes.

"Bedbugs were once thought of as creatures in filthy homes, but that is no longer the case. What makes bedbugs different is that they only feed on blood, nothing else," he says. “And what they do is they hitch a ride. So, for example, if you have a guest that was in a place infested with bed bugs, they may have crawled into their luggage and then can spread into your home. The same is possible through the use of laundry services, contractors or public transportation. So it has nothing to do with the cleanliness of a home."

In addition, Ramachandran says the term bedbug is a misnomer, as these creatures can be found on any surface. Bedbugs are about the size of an apple seed and similar in colour. If they are spotted, people must seek professional help immediately to avoid further infestation.

A variety of treatments, including extreme heat, toxic chemicals and organic chemicals, can be used to eliminate pests. Toxic chemicals are diluted with water to make them toxic only to insects and not to human beings, but it is crucial that homeowners check that the pest control company they are hiring is licensed by the municipality to ensure that the chemicals they are using are safe and workers are properly trained. Although organic treatments may seem like the best option, experts advise to change products continuously to avoid breeding treatment-resistant pests.

"They breed very fast, within a span of one to two weeks, so if you keep repeating the same product, the next generation of pests will pick up some resistant genes and they won't respond to the treatment,” says Ramachandran. "That's why we use a number of products and we keep swapping.''

You are what you eat
Many people don't know it, but experts say most cases of food poisoning are the result of improper handling of food at home.

"Our team has found that most of these cases are domestic," says Khalid Mohammed Sharif AI Awadhi. Director of the Food Control Department at the Dubai Municipality. "Most of them are related to the preparation of the food or general cleanliness and hygiene.

"The most common mistake that people make is that they leave the food with housemaids who do not understand how to properly handle it. So it's better to handle the food yourself or, if necessary, properly teach the maid.” Last year, there were 518 confirmed food-borne illnesses in Dubai. Bobby Krishna, Principal Food Safety Officer at the Dubai Municipality, said it is difficult to pinpoint exactly at what point the ingested food went bad, as it could have happened at any point during storage or preparation.

However, following some safety guidelines can protect people from getting sick. For instance, do not leave prepared food at room temperature for more than two hours. Food should be refrigerated at between 0 and 5 degrees Celsius, frozen foods at below -18 degrees Celsius and meat must be cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 75 degrees Celsius.

People should pay close attention to high-risk food, especially products that have already been cooked and need refrigeration. Such products include pasteurised milk, cold sandwiches, cold cut meats, salads and cut melons.

"When purchasing these foods, they should already be chilled," Krishna says. “They have a very limited shelf life. Refrigerating these foods doesn't completely stop the growth of organisms, but it reduces the rate of multiplication. So, by subjecting food to an average temperature, the organisms will multiply rapidly and make food unsafe.

"Also, don't underestimate the power of splashing. Many people will wash raw meat in the sink, the water will splash and the bacteria spreads in your kitchen.”

Kitchen surfaces, including the sink, should also be disinfected between use to avoid cross-contamination. Kitchen sponges and rags should also be changed weekly or washed at 60 degrees Celsius or higher.

In the Home Hygiene study, some kitchen surfaces and items were found to be even more contaminated than those in bathrooms, says Dr Halwani "This is because people are aware of the germs lurking in the bathroom, so they're likely to take more precautions.

"But people often underestimate those in the kitchen. Usually, one sink is used for everything, from washing raw meat to fruit and vegetables. Food accumulates on the surface over time and that increases the risk of cross-contamination and bacteria retention. This creates a breeding ground for germs and bacteria," he says.



Source: Manal Ismail, Special to Property Weekly