Darwin vs Daily Express readers: die from fire, not dirty dishcloths. Not that the latter happens anyway

So I missed it, for reasons that ought to be obvious, but apparently yesterday the Daily Express advised its readers – in its splash?! – that MICROWAVE ovens can be used to combat deadly food poisoning bugs by sterilising kitchen cloths, scientists have claimed.. (Popup warning: use a popup blocker on that site.)


Experiments show that zapping sponges, cloths and plastic scouring pads for just two minutes in a microwave can kill 99 per cent of the germs contained in them.

BBC News 24, never knowingly replete with stories, repeated it. And some people tried it.

Result: Firefighters Warn Against Microwaving Sponges And Clothes (from firefighting.com): Shropshire Fire Service said that they had attended a fire that occurred, when a person attempted to sterilize a dishcloth in a microwave oven. (Check out the ads on that site too. “Single firefighters.” Female single firefighters? Ur.)

So there are two things which are stupid about this story.

1) Doing something because the paper said it would work. What red-tops, especially the terminally malnourished Express, may tell you is almost certainly the opposite of the truth.

2) Excuse me, but how many deaths are there each year in the UK due to slightly mangy cloths? Even how many cases of food poisoning? This is precisely the sort of scare story I detest. Surely there are more case of food poisoning from things like salmonella in eggs, undercooked chicken and so on. The Health Protection Agency has 70,000-odd cases recorded – on a downward slope – but how many deaths from bacterially-infected towels?

I can’t find a single cite.

So: people are burning down their houses – well, making a start on their kitchens – because of a pointless story about a piece of research into something that’s unnecessary.

Oh yeah, but it’s nice that it’s the Express doing it to its readers. Like there weren’t few enough of them already.


  1. Neat Private Eye-esq post Charles. Expect a story about bleaching next week, with the result that A&E departments are over run with Express readers nursing chemical burns. Thanks.

  2. Actually it works well (damp of course) and leaves the sponge in a much better fettle than previously. So all in all it’s a good tip. Though I agree with your point about germ deaths : germs are good for you anyway (up to a point)

  3. Kinda refutes that whole idea about everyone being too busy nowadays. If you’ve got time to microwave your cloths (and the Express have space to write about it), clearly we’re not that busy.

  4. Anyone who causes death by infected tea towels tends not to advertise it. It did happen in the John West fish cannery where they had a horse shoe shaped line and put the towels on the hot cans to dry. Spores from the towels entered micro-holes in the cans and deaths ensued. OK it was an investigative triumph and over 20 years ago but it demonstrates that dirty tea towels are not nice things. Personally I throw my microfibre dishcloth in the washing up machine. Never had a fireman round yet.

  5. Charles

    Friday 26 January 2007 at 11:35 pm

    Ooh, good cite, Barbara. But I would have thought that the HPA would record it when a teatowel is the culprit.

    And see, by avoiding the fireman visiting, well, that’s why you’re not in Sex & The City.

  6. A 10-pack of useful-quality washing-up sponges costs 59p from our local got-it-all bargain shop. Dishcloths – if that’s your preferred cleansing tool – are similarly priced. If one ignores awkward ethical questions over the fearsome slave labours that must go in to producing items that can be sold so very cheaply, new questions arise – who’s keeping sponges/cloths long enough to breed scary levels of germs, and why? In our admittedly small household I’d estimate we use each 6p sponge for three or four days for dish-washing before ‘downgrading’ it to under-the-sink duties (floor cleansing and so forth). I wonder how much electricity will be wasted zapping sponges and cloths in 1kw microwaves? I say buy new sponges.

  7. Actually, I remember some 15 years ago being advised (in the US) to do this with underpants to prevent recurrence of yeast infections.

    Underpants char nicely, by the way.


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