Tea towels that are used for multiple jobs, such as cleaning utensils, wiping surfaces and drying hands, could be putting households at risk of food poisoning, new research suggests.
For the study, scientists from the University of Mauritius examined 100 different tea towels that had been used for a month. They found E.coli was more likely to be present on tea towels that were used for multiple purposes, particularly towels that were damp or came from houses where meat was eaten.
It’s thought that using a tea towel for multiple purposes increases the chance of cross-contamination, which can spread bacteria and cause food poisoning.
The scientists analysed the bacteria they found on the tea towels and found a number of different species and strains. Of the 100 towels analysed, 49% were found to have bacteria growth. Towels from households with children and large families were found to hold the most bacteria.
Of the 49 towels which tested positive for bacteria, 36.7% contained coliform bacteria, a species which includes E.coli. A further 36.7% tested positive for Enterococcus bacteria, while 14% contained Staphylococcus aureus.
Significantly higher levels of coliform bacteria and Staphylococcus were found on tea towels from meat-eating households, while E.coli was more likely to develop on towels that had been left to sit damp.
“Our study demonstrates that the family composition and hygienic practices in the kitchen affected the microbial load of kitchen towels,” said Dr Susheela Biranjia-Hurdoyal, of the University of Mauritius. “We also found that diet, type of use and moist kitchen towels could be very important in promoting the growth of potential pathogens responsible for food poisoning.”
Possible faecal contamination
The presence of E.coli on some of the tea towels indicated possible faecal contamination and bad hygiene practices, according to the researchers.
Interestingly, the material the tea towels were made from may also have been a factor that contributed to bacteria growth. Cotton towels were found to have higher levels of bacteria than nylon towels or towels that were made from a cotton/nylon mix.
Coliform bacteria can cause a wide range of conditions in humans, including stomach cramps, fever and vomiting, as well as more serious illnesses such as pneumonia and respiratory illnesses.
Staphylococcus aureus bacteria can lead to life-threatening conditions such as meningitis and toxic shock syndrome.
So what’s the advice when it comes to reducing the risk of bacteria growing on your tea towels?
For best protection, tea towels should be washed at 60C (140F) after every use. However, this is far from practical, so most families will be okay just to let theirs dry thoroughly and replace them with clean ones on a regular basis. Disposable cloths and paper towels can also help reduce the spread of germs, as can ensuring food preparation surfaces are always kept clean – especially immediately before and after use.
The findings of this research should serve as a wake-up call for households that do not replace their tea towels on a regular basis.
I joined Premier Choice Group as an SME/Corporate Consultant in 2017 and look after the Healthcare & Protection needs of a nationwide portfolio. I began my career in Healthcare and Protection in 1985 with BUPA, before moving on to Royal & Sun Alliance. In 2002, I became an Intermediary and worked with Private Clients, SME’s and Corporate clients on a local, national and international basis.