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Thinking of Disinfecting Your Sponge? It’ll Do More Harm Than Good

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Common house-cleaning wisdom advises you to clean your sponges periodically. Some experts advise running them through the dishwasher, while others suggest microwaving a wet sponge. But a new study says that both of those techniques will do more harm than good, as The New York Times reports.

A trio of microbiologists came to this conclusion after collecting used sponges from households in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, a city near Zurich. As the researchers write in Nature Scientific Reports, they asked the 14 houses that gave them sponges to describe how they were used—how many people in the house handled them, how often they used them, how often they replaced them, and if they ever tried to clean them.

Analyzing DNA and RNA found on those sponges, they found a total of 362 different bacterial species living on them. The sheer number of the bacterial colonies was staggering—some 82 billion total bacteria were living in a cubic inch of sponge. (As co-author Markus Egert told the Times, that’s similar to what you’d find in your poop.)

As the researchers discovered by analyzing the bacteria found on sponges whose users said they regularly cleaned them, disinfecting a sponge using a microwave, vinegar, or a dishwasher is worse than useless. It seems that when you attempt to clean a sponge, you kill off some bacteria, but in doing so, you provide an environment for the worst species of bacteria to thrive. Sponges that were regularly cleaned had higher concentrations of bacteria like Moraxella osloensis, which can cause infections in humans. (Though it’s unclear how likely you are to get infected by your sponge.) It’s also the reason dirty laundry smells. By microwaving your sponge, you’re probably just making it smellier.

Sadly, there’s not much you can do about your dirty sponge except throw it away. You can recycle it to use as part of your cleaning routine in the bathroom or somewhere else where it’s far away from your food, but the best way to get a clean sponge, it seems, is to just buy a new one. May we suggest the Scrub Daddy?

[h/t The New York Times]

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German Doctors May Soon Prescribe Parasite Eggs
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People all over the world have started swallowing worms, and not because anybody dared them to do it. Now, according to Discover magazine, Germany may become one of the first countries to legalize this controversial treatment.

It’s called helminthic therapy: an intentional parasite infection that (theoretically) suppresses an overactive immune system.

For reasons scientists don’t fully understand, autoimmune and inflammatory conditions like asthma, lupus, and inflammatory bowel disease are on the rise. Yet despite their prevalence, treatment options for some of these conditions are slim. After years of illness, many people reach a point where they’re willing to try anything; one study estimates that more than 7000 people have purchased parasites online to try at home.

Trials of the treatment have had mixed results. Some studies found that helminthic therapy may help people with Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and multiple sclerosis. Its efficacy in other conditions, like allergies, is less clear.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has classified helminthic therapy as an Investigational New Drug (IND). This means it can only legally be used by researchers in clinical trials. But just across the border in Mexico, there are providers and clinics specializing in the parasite treatment. Thailand has legalized helminthic therapy, too. Elsewhere, would-be consumers are out of luck.

That may soon change, as Germany’s Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety is currently considering allowing the use of a parasite called Trichuris suis. If the certification is approved [PDF], a liquid containing the worm’s eggs will be certified as a food ingredient. This particular species ordinarily infects pigs, and is short-lived in humans, a fact that proponents say should reduce or eliminate the risk of side effects.

Even if the government says helminthic therapy is safe, experts recommend using it like any other drug—that is, with medical supervision.

“Self-medication with any type of worm is not recommended,” Helena Helmby of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told New Scientist, “and it is important to remember they’re not in any way completely harmless, and may cause quite severe side effects if not monitored very carefully by a doctor.”

[h/t Discover]

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Scientists Think They Know What Causes Trypophobia
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Picture a boat hull covered with barnacles, a dried lotus seed pod, milk bubbles on a latte, or a honeycomb. Images of these objects are harmless—unless you're one of the millions of people suffering from trypophobia. Then they're likely to induce intense disgust, nausea, and fear, and make your skin crawl.

Coined fairly recently, the term trypophobia describes the fear of clusters of holes. The phobia isn’t recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but its visibility on the internet suggests that for many, it’s very real. Now, scientists in the UK think they've pinpointed the evolutionary mechanism behind the reaction.

Tom Kupfer of the University of Kent and An T. D. Le of the University of Essex shared their findings in the journal Cognition and Emotion. According to their research, trypophobia evolved as a way to avoid infectious disease. Thousands of years ago, if you saw a person covered in boils or a body covered in flies, a natural aversion to the sight would have helped you avoid catching whatever they had.

But being disgusted by skin riddled with pathogens or parasites alone doesn't mean you're trypophobic; after all, keeping your distance from potential infection is smart. But trypophobia seems to misplace that reaction, as the authors write: "Trypophobia may be an exaggerated and overgeneralized version of this normally adaptive response."

Lotus pod.
Lotus seed pods are a common trigger of trypophobia.

This explanation is not entirely new, but until now little research has been done into whether it's accurate. To test their hypothesis, the scientists recruited 376 self-described trypophobes from online forums, and another 304 college students who didn't claim to have the affliction. Both groups were shown two sets of images: The first depicted clusters of circle-shaped marks on animals and human body parts (the "disease-relevant cluster images"); the second showed clusters of holes on inanimate objects like bricks and flower pods ("disease-irrelevant cluster images"). While both groups reported feeling repulsed by the first collection of photographs, only the trypophobes felt the same about the pictures that had nothing to do with infection.

Another takeaway from the study is that trypophobia is more related to sensations of disgust than fear. This sets it apart from more common phobias like arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or acrophobia (fear of heights). And you don't have to be trypophobic to be disgusted by a video of Suriname toadlets being born through holes in their mother's back. We can all be grossed out by that.

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