Science of student life: hygiene
Student life is chaotic and spontaneous – regular duties like cleaning are not high on the to-do list. What does it mean to live with a lot of people in a limited space among a bulk of bacteria and a pile of garbage? Is it harmful to our health? Find out in this fifth instalment of ‘Science of Student Life’.
Yes, it is definitely annoying to tidy up the kitchen, recycle, take out the garbage, clean the bathroom and wash the dishes – but could it actually be important enough to get ourselves to do it more regularly? A national survey looked at the number of bacteria in dishcloths in student houses and in the average Dutch household. What they found was striking: A student house holds no fewer than 7.9 billion bacteria, a household only 3.1 million.
“A good piece of advice for students would be to wash their cloths and dishtowels regularly and at some point to exchange them for new ones”, says Ed Smeets, infection control manager at the Maastricht academic hospital. I talked to him to find out more about hygiene conditions and whether or not students are risking their health by being lazy. Smeets is responsible for managing outbreaks, registering infections, and promoting and monitoring the use of hygiene protocols in the hospital. He is involved in a wide variety of processes: the construction and equipment of special-purpose rooms, the ventilation system and the food and water supply, to name just a few. It is Smeets who knows when and where hygiene measures become critical.
Based on your experience, what can you tell us about the hygiene conditions of student houses?
First, Smeets explains the difference between hospitals and student houses. A hospital hosts sick people and harbours bacteria that can survive a harsh antibiotic environment. Student houses, in contrast, are home to bacteria from our natural environment (such as our skin and throat, and the food we eat) and are inhabited by young and healthy people. “Students don’t use as many antibiotics as hospitalised people, and their bodies’ defences are strong. So in fact, the risk of getting a dangerous infection is much higher in a hospital than in a student house. Therefore, the hygiene protocols in hospitals are very strict, while there’s no need for them in a student house.”
What are the ‘danger zones’ in a student house?
“Number one is the kitchen. First because of the herd of bacteria in frequently used dish cloths and towels. And second because of the infectious mix of bacteria from raw food (meat and fish) and fresh food (salad, vegetables, fruit). Imagine you use a cloth to ‘clean’ a dirty surface, then you prepare meat on it, and after that your side salad. Or you simply use the same chopping board or knife to cut meat and salad ingredients. Diarrhoea is an indicator of having the wrong bacteria in your stomach and intestines. This typically occurs after a barbeque – the meat is not always prepared properly. So my next advice would be to use separate knives and boards for fresh foods and foods that need to be prepared.”
What about the fridge?
“Fridges must stay below 7°C. This is particularly important for meat and milk products. If the temperature is higher, bacteria multiply and spread on these foods. Clean it regularly and properly – not only the front, but also inside it and in the narrow corners. Fridges have to work harder if they’re too full or dirty. This wastes energy and increases the chances of them breaking.”
Is a dirty kitchen really harmful to our health?
“When students hear ‘hygiene’, they think only about cleaning. But it’s more than that. It’s about overall health and even safety. For example, re-using the fat in a fryer can lead to an increase of carbon atom that endangers your health. Dirty cables and outlets may cause the electricity to short out and start a fire. Also, dirty fire alarms are less sensitive and reliable, up to the point that they won’t detect a fire at all.”
Any danger zones beside the kitchen?
“Number two is the toilet, of course. Simply because of the diversity and infectiousness of the bacteria that are present there.”