Can Handwashing Dishes Increase Your Chances of Getting Sick?

Don't want to get sick? Get a dishwasher.

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Interviewed in the Richard Linklater film Waking Life, late American philosopher Louis H. Mackey posited that the most universal human characteristic is either fear or laziness. Whether or not this is true is subject to long, inflammatory debate—not a matter for an appliance forum—but one thing is clear: These two traits are what sell dishwashers, and as long as you’re human, you should have one.

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Fear

If you clean plates by hand, you should be afraid. Very afraid. Deep within the microscopic chasms of your filthy, grime-infested kitchen sink are tiny little monsters with ghastly superpowers. They are legion, and there’s little you can do to stop them (cue the Super Friends theme).

One of these creatures is called Escherichia coli (you may know it better as E. coli ) and it’s really good at finding its way from the end of the digestive process to the beginning, if you know what I mean. It also loves to bathe in your sink. In fact, according to a University of Arizona study, sinks often host larger cultures of E. coli and other fecal bacteria than toilet seats.

And then there’s Salmonella, good for an all-expenses paid seven-day, six-night trip straight to the bathroom. Public health bulletins have done a good job of warning us about this nasty little bugger, particularly its presence in raw chicken, eggs and tainted fruits and veggies. But you probably didn’t know that it can survive for weeks in a dry environment and even longer in water. If you’ve handled raw chicken or made an omelet lately, there’s a chance it's still lurking, just waiting to give you days of gastrointestinal distress.

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All fear-mongering aside, there are innumerable species of bacteria that are currently squatting in that Jenga pile of dishware in your kitchen sink. Most of them are harmless, but some of them aren’t—and if you aren’t using a dishwasher, you continue to feed all of them. Like Ambrosia bearing garlands of food-borne immortality to the Greeks, you satiate them with your reliance on archaic sanitation methods.

This is where dishwashers come into play—or more importantly, good dishwashers. Most consumers assume that dish-washing is merely about scrubbing dishes and removing food soils. Wrong! Water inside that dishwasher must reach and stay at 155 degrees before dishes, pots and pans are sanitized and all those pathogens get swept off to a watery grave.

Laziness

That’s the practical, hygienic reason why you need a dishwasher, but if Mackey’s theory is to be believed, there’s also a more ignoble reason: laziness. Let’s face it, washing dishes by hand sucks. It wastes hours that you could spend doing other things like working, cooking, or going to the store and buying a dishwasher. If you’ve got plenty of time on your dishpan hands, perhaps you’ll be swayed by a recent study from the University of Bonn in Germany (PDF) that shows that automatic dishwashers use less water and energy than handwashing.

Dishwashing

So what are you waiting for? If you’ve got space for a built-in dishwasher, your options are numerous. Just look for a machine that promises water temperatures over 155 degrees. It’ll usually advertise a “sanitize” feature, which super-heats water to kill bacteria. It doesn’t matter if the sanitize feature is a standalone cycle, as on the relatively inexpensive GE GLDT696TSS, or a simple add-on, like in the higher-end Electrolux EIDW5905JS.. The Fagor LFA-65 IT X even lists on its control panel the precise temperatures reached by each of its respective wash cycles.

If you’re an apartment dweller, even cheap, portable, counter-top machines are capable of heating water to levels that kill most bacteria. So if your landlord won’t install a built-in, these compact machines work with just a sink and an electrical outlet.

We all know dishwashers are expensive. I cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis myself. But I’ve also had strep throat nine times, which is caused by Streptococcus pyogenes—a species of bacteria that can thrive in (surprise surprise!) moist environments. Of course, I can’t prove I caught strep so many times simply because I opted to wash my dishes by hand. But the fact remains: Manual dish-washing is extremely unsanitary. Not only does it increase your own chances of transmission, but anyone who eats off your squalid dinnerware is also more likely to catch a nasty bug or two, which probably explains why I had so few second dates.

If a legitimate fear of contaminated dishware doesn’t motivate you to get a dishwasher, just let laziness take over. It may confirm Mackey’s worst nightmares about humanity, but at least it might keep you, your friends and family from getting food poisoning.

Photo: Eric Erbe, digital colorization by Christopher Pooley, both of USDA, ARS, EMU.

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