I have two pet peeves: people who park like they've got the only car in the lot and slimy smelly kitchen sponges. There's not much I can do about the first one, but sponges in my kitchen I can control. And that's good because sponges, believe it or not, can actually create a toxic household hot spot if we're not careful. The problem is that sponges are an ideal environment for bacteria encountered during cleaning. Wipe up a few germs, and they're going to think they landed in a microscopic country club with an all-you-can-eat food particle buffet, endless nooks and crannies to hang out in, and a fantastic weather forecast calling for warmth with a 100% chance of damp. That's why whenever people study household sponges (and yes, people actually do), they find all kinds of yucky stuff hiding inside many of them. A 1994 University of Arizona study, for example, found that about 80% of tested kitchen sponges contained some combination of up to 15 different kinds of dangerous bacteria including E. coli and salmonella. That's enough to make me chuck the sponge completely and reach for the paper towels, but we all know that reusable trumps disposable, which makes these three simple rules for non-toxic sponging a better, healthier bet:
- Rule #1: Choose your sponges carefully. Many are made from polyester, polyurethane, and/or other non-renewable, non-biodegradable petroleum-based materials. They're also increasingly treated with conventional antibacterial chemicals. A better option are sponges made from renewable, biodegradable cellulose, which will last longer, absorb more, and work harder. You can find untreated, natural cellulose sponges at almost any natural food store.
- Rule #2: Practice safe sponging. I keep two different sponges, and never the twain shall meet: One is exclusively for counters and the other is only used on dishes. I clip a corner of the counter sponge to distinguish it. I also don't use my kitchen sponge to clean up after meat preparation, on the floor, or anywhere else I think bacteria might lurk. Meat zones and other suspect areas get treated with Seventh Generation's new disinfecting cleaner and recycled paper towels. Messes on the floor get another paper towel or two.
- Rule #3: A sponge can't clean unless it is too. According to a 2008 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) study, which looked at everything from soaking sponges in lemon juice to treating them with chlorine, only three techniques effectively sanitize sponges: Wash them in the dishwasher or microwave them on high for 60 seconds. The third choice is to boil them, but that's not very energy efficient. These tactics should kill 99.99 of any bacteria present. Everything else, according to the USDA, is snake oil. Between sanitizings, keep your sponges high and dry. Wring them out after each use, and store them in a dry place. I found a cool little wire basket at the hardware store that suction-cups to the side of the sink and lets air circulate around my sponges so they dry faster.