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September 6, 2000
Home Alert: Keeping Kids Safe from Salmonella
By Craig Bida

illustration: Skipper Chong Warson

Mention the word salmonella and most people think of contaminated food. Parents with young children, however, might be interested in a recent study published on the subject in the journal Pediatrics. The most serious risk of salmonella infection for young children comes not from the chicken sandwiches or hard-boiled eggs in their lunch boxes, but rather from bacteria and dirt found elsewhere in the home.

The new research reveals that when it comes to kids under the age of 4, food is often not the cause of salmonella infections. Gordon Schutze, a researcher on the project and an associate professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, reminds parents: "Food is not the only vehicle for disease. People need to also look carefully at other things in their environment, including themselves and pets, as potential carriers."

Salmonellosis, a diarrheal illness that affects 40,000 Americans per year and results in death for 1,000 of these, is usually linked to the consumption of foods like meat, cheese, and eggs that have been contaminated with salmonella bacteria. In truth, however, salmonella infections have causes aside from contaminated groceries or a dirty kitchen counter. The bacteria have also been traced to infected house pets, such as turtles, snakes, and even dogs and cats.

The new study goes even further in confirming that salmonella can be found anywhere in your home -- in your food, on your pet, on your doorknobs, even inside your vacuum cleaner. Scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently completed exhaustive inspections of homes in Arkansas in which children had become sick. As part of the two-year study, scientists obtained cultures from a variety of sources, including foods, family members, pets, appliances, water, vacuum cleaners, cutting boards, dirt, can openers, and countertops.

Researchers unearthed evidence of salmonella on foods or in food-related areas like countertops, cutting boards, and refrigerators, as expected. But astonishingly, of all the foods sampled in the study -- everything from peanut butter to sausage -- researchers found only one food sample that carried salmonella: a wedge of cheese. This cheese, a small piece remaining from a larger block, was found in the kitchen of a family in which one child was sick with salmonellosis and two children also tested positive for salmonella. Researchers concluded that the cheese itself was not the primary source of illness, but instead that it had become contaminated through repeated handling. As further evidence that food is not the primary source of salmonella illness in youngsters, one-third of the young patients in the study had been consuming exclusively formula or jar foods, which are unlikely sources of salmonella infection.

Researchers also discovered salmonella bacteria spread throughout the home. Hot spots included dirt found in heavily trafficked areas, like entrance doors; on family members or pets; and inside of the vacuum cleaner. These findings are of particular concern for parents, since small children spend so much time on or near the floor and often place found items in their mouths.

Certainly, salmonella infection is particularly dangerous for the elderly and for those with suppressed immune systems, but in our population, children are the most likely victims. More education is needed to alert parents to salmonella risks posed by things other than food, warns Schutze. "Food gets a lot of focus but it's clearly not the only vehicle or carrier of disease. Our environment is also part of the disease problem, and we need to pay attention."

There is an easy solution to the potentially dangerous problem of salmonella in your house, notes Schutze. "Keep your house clean, wash your hands before eating and before feeding your child, and always have your kids wash their hands before eating," says Schutze. "It's pretty simple: Remember the things your mother taught you."