Sunday, June 4, 2023

Why You Really Should Clean Your Trash Can

It’s springtime, the season when sunlight illuminates every dust bunny in my house. I, like many others, clean around this time each year. But when I told Dr. Kathleen May, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, that one of my favorite pastimes is thoroughly washing all of my bedding, she said something that will haunt me forever.

“If your blanket has been sitting on a bed all winter, it may be loaded with dust mites,” Dr. May said. “If you shake it, the dust mites are going to be airborne for one to two hours.”

She added that airborne dust mites, while gross, are a problem only for people who are allergic to them. Still, I gingerly folded my comforter as if it were a priceless ancient textile and bundled it off to the dry cleaner.

Dr. May’s tidbit made me think beyond the usual spring-cleaning tasks. So, I decided to ask health experts about the areas they target in their own homes. Here are the top four:

“Fridges need a thorough cleaning at least every four months to prevent the growth of bacteria and mold,” said Isis Lamphier, an epidemiologist at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla.

Take every item out of the refrigerator and freezer, checking expiration dates as you go. Clean the inside, including shelves, with diluted bleach, which kills food-borne pathogens such as salmonella, Lamphier said.

“Spring cleaning is a good time to check the temperature of your fridge,” she added, “to make sure it’s at the proper temperature to inhibit the growth of bacteria.” (The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.)

If you have a central heat and air-conditioning system, consider replacing HVAC filters, Dr. May said. They collect airborne contaminants including mold spores and allergens.

Not only should you change the filters, said Frank Gyan, a former epidemiologist and president of Distinct Cleaning Services and Solutions, a janitorial company in Hanover, Mass., but if you’re able, you should also hire a professional to clean inside the ventilation system.

“They can go in through the roof,” he said, “and they have the necessary tools to get into the nooks and crannies. You can really tell the difference afterward in the air quality. The air is significantly fresher, you breathe easier, less sneezing, and less odor.”

Another tip for better air quality: “Clean your ceiling fans, because a lot of dust can get on it, which is dirt and bacteria, and it can trigger allergies,” Lamphier said.

The inside of your kitchen faucet “is the perfect setup for mold to grow,” said Patricia Jackson, the president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. “People will probably be surprised — if they take those aerators off the faucet — at the junk they’ll see in there.”

Unscrew the aerator, the small screened part at the end of your faucet, she said. Then, with “good old dish soap and water,” use a small toothbrush to scrub the screen and the inside of your faucet, where mold is likely to build up, she said. While most people exposed to waterborne germs won’t get sick, some groups are more vulnerable, she said, including those over 50 and people with underlying illnesses such as diabetes.

We constantly dump bacteria-covered trash and food scraps in kitchen garbage cans, and they are usually closed. Without exposure to air, “bacteria is continuing to grow and grow,” Lamphier said. She recommended hauling your trash can outside, if possible, and power-washing it or hosing it out using dish soap and water. Then wipe it down, inside and out, with disinfectant.

And if you keep putting off spring cleaning, know that even some experts are lax about it. “I’ll be totally honest,” Dr. May said. “I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had time to get to it.”

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