The Grapevine

Bacteria Grows On Kitchen Towels, But Health Risks May Be Overblown

A new study explored the kind of bacteria likely to reside in our kitchen towels. But the question is, how sick can you get from being exposed to them? Researchers from the University of Mauritius presented the study at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Atlanta on June 9.

What were the findings of the study?

As part of the study, 100 kitchen towels were collected and examined by the research team. The families who provided the towels also submitted a filled-out questionnaire about their living conditions. It was found nearly half of the towels (49 percent) had bacterial growth.

"In this study, we investigated the potential role of kitchen towels in cross-contamination in the kitchen and various factors affecting the microbial profile and load of kitchen towels," said lead author Susheela D. Biranjia-Hurdoyal, senior lecturer from the Department of Health Sciences at the university.

What were some of the factors affecting pathogen growth?

Family members were one of the factors listed by the authors. Towels used by families with children or elderly people contained more bacteria, as did large families in general.

Non-vegetarian diets, multipurpose use, and leaving the towels moist may increase the risk of or directly promote the growth of pathogens, Biranjia-Hurdoyal added.

"The data indicated that unhygienic practices while handling non-vegetarian food could be common in the kitchen," she said with regards to the potential for cross-contamination in the kitchen.

Multipurpose towels (used for wiping plates, cutlery, kitchen surfaces, hands) had a higher bacterial count than single-use ones while humid towels were found to have a higher bacterial count than the dry ones.

What were the kinds of bacteria found on the towels?

Among the samples which were positive for bacterial growth, 36.7 percent grew coliforms, 36.7 percent grew Enterococcus spp, and 14.3 percent grew S. aureus.

S. aureus was more prevalent in families of lower socioeconomic status and those with children. This bacterium, as well as coliforms, were also more likely to reside on towels used by families with non-vegetarian diets.

Humid towels had higher chances of harboring coliforms than the dried ones. The presence of Escherichia coli was said to indicate a possible fecal contamination and lack of hygiene practices such as washing hands.

Can kitchen towels cause food poisoning or illnesses?

Experts have noted the findings were not particularly surprising nor did they identify anything which could lead to a serious foodborne illness, such as salmonella.

"It doesn't surprise me at all that something that's in a kitchen environment has bacteria on it. We really do live in a world that's dominated by microorganisms," said Benjamin Chapman, an associate professor and food safety specialist at North Carolina State University. 

In other words, there is nothing to particularly worry about but the study was still a reminder to adopt good hygiene habits. Washing your hands before dealing with food and switching towels/sponges regularly were recommended as basic practices in every household.