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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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How a London Museum Is Preserving a Chunk of the 143-Ton Whitechapel Fatberg
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images

When UK officials learned of the 143-ton Whitechapel fatberg mucking up London’s sewer system, their first concern was getting rid of it. Now, the curators at the Museum of London are figuring out how to best preserve a chunk of the monstrous trash mass so as many visitors as possible can see it.

As WIRED UK reports, the museum's exhibition, titled "Fatberg!", launches on Friday, February 9. It features a congealed mound of fat, hair, diapers, wet wipes, sanitary napkins, and condoms that was salvaged from the Whitechapel fatberg shortly after it was discovered beneath the streets of London in September 2017. According to the exhibition’s curator, Vyki Sparkes, no one has ever tried preserving a fatberg before.

The garbage globs, which form from grease and oil poured down sink drains, attract debris ranging in size from candy wrappers to planks of wood. Just a small piece of one can provide a fascinating glimpse at the waste that ends up in city sewers, but displaying a fatberg for the public to view poses logistical challenges.

In this case, the fatberg piece was set out to dry for seven weeks before it was transported to the Museum of London. The resulting item has the consistency of "parmesan crossed with moon rock," according to CBC News, and is roughly the size of a shoebox. Outside of the moist environment of London’s underbelly, the solid chunk may continue to dry out and crumble into pieces. Mold growth and sewer fly infestations are also potential issues as long as it's left out in the open.

The museum curators initially considered pickling the fatberg in formaldehyde to solve the aging problem. This idea was ultimately nixed as the liquid would have likely dissolved the whole lump into loose sludge. Freezing was another possibility, but the museum was unable to get a hold of the specialist freezers necessary for that to happen in time.

In the end, the curators decided to display it as-is within three layers of boxes. The clear cases are meant to spare guests from the noxious odor that Sparkes described to CBC News as a weeks-old diaper smell that’s simmered into something more like a “damp Victorian basement.” The exhibition closes July 1, at which point the museum must decide if the fatberg, if it remains intact, should become a permanent part of their collection. And if the mass doesn’t end up surviving the five-month show, obtaining another one to sample shouldn’t be too difficult.

[h/t WIRED UK]

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The Surprising Place Where You're Likely to Encounter Germs at the Airport
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From obsessing over recycled cabin air to worrying about potentially contaminated coffee or tea, flying isn't fun for germophobes. Now, Lonely Planet reports that travelers who opt for self check-in should consider breaking out the hand sanitizer before they even hit security.

In late 2017, the team at website insuranceQuotes checked out three major U.S. airports, as well as the planes used on several flights, to gauge which areas were the most germ-filled. They conducted 18 swab tests across six surfaces (including airport water fountains and plane armrests), then used lab analysis to measure the average number of colony-forming units (CFU), a standard measurement for the number of viable bacteria and fungal cells per square inch of a surface area.

Self check-in kiosks were the germiest surface, according to lab findings. The average kiosk screen contained 253,857 CFU, with one kiosk recording over 1 million CFU. Bathroom flush buttons were, surprisingly, quite a bit cleaner (although not that clean), with an average of 95,145 CFU. Other particularly germy spots included the bench armrests at airline gates (21,630 CFU on average), water fountain buttons (19,181 CFU on average) and airplane tray tables (11,595 CFU on average).

To put their results in perspective, insuranceQuotes provided the average CFUs for household objects and appliances like kitchen sinks (21,000 CFU), bathroom doorknobs (203 CFU), and toilet seats (172 CFU). For the most part, these levels were far lower than the ones found in airports and on planes, as you might expect when comparing public spaces to private homes.

But this report shouldn't plunge travelers into full-on Howard Hughes mode. For one thing, the tests were performed by an insurance company, not a team of trained scientists. And at the end of the day, not all germs are actually bad for you. As humans, we have trillions of microbes living both on us and inside of us. Some of these microbes are beneficial, and can even kill disease-causing bacteria. Exposure to some bacteria can even strengthen our immune systems.

Still worried? While flying, just remember to be careful where you put your hands, stash a travel-sized bottle of Purell in your carry-on, and follow other preventative tips for avoiding germs in transit.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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