The War on Household Germs Goes Nuclear

You don't really need the SpongeBath. But this is America, dammit, so you can buy it anyway!

Last weekend I was at the Shore with my relations, as I am every August at this time of year. We’d just finished supper, and as some of us got up to clear the table, I began putting the leftovers away. I packed some rice into a bowl, covered it with plastic wrap, and went to put it in the fridge. “You’re not going to put that in there now, are you?” my cousin Joan asked in horror.

“Why not?”

“If you put leftovers covered in plastic wrap in the refrigerator before they cool down, they’ll give you cancer,” she said.

“What?” I said. “I never heard of such a thing.”

“It’s true,” my cousin Pam said, in a rare instance of backing up Joanie. “Some kind of chemical collects on the underside of the plastic wrap.”

“Did you ever hear of this?” I asked a nearby sibling.

My sister Nan shook her head.

“I think the fridge uses up more energy if you don’t let them cool down first,” my daughter Marcy said tentatively. “But I never heard of the cancer thing.”

This is exactly the sort of discussion that in my family can quickly escalate into a full-fledged brawl: shaky science, secondhand rumors from the Internet, none of us really knowing what we’re talking about. In the interests of peacekeeping, I let the rice cool on the counter. God forbid Joan or Pam comes down with cancer and blames it on me. But I thought about that postprandial exchange last week when I read a New York Times article about two guys, Tod Maitland and Matthew Flannery, who have invented something called the SpongeBath. Tod and Matthew became concerned about the state of their household sponges after an earlier attempt to invent a system for improved lighting in store dressing rooms fell through. One day, as Tod explains, he was washing dishes in the kitchen and “couldn’t get the smell of the sponge off my hands, that stink.” So he called Matt and said, “I think I have something.” As in, household germs.

In the Times article, Tod explains that he found out by reading the Wall Street Journal that a kitchen sponge is 200,000 times dirtier than your toilet seat, and you wouldn’t wash dishes with your toilet seat, would you? So what are you doing wiping your forks with that disgusting sponge? Oh, and if you think running that sponge through the dishwasher or microwaving it is going to destroy the billions and billions of household germs and bacteria camping out there, Matthew says you’re wrong: “The science on that is the microwave and the dishwasher work, but after they come out, the germs on the sponge double every 20 minutes. Four bacteria will become four billion in 24 hours.” Omigod! My sponge is trying to kill me!

Tod and Matthew spent 10 years — 10 years! — trying to solve the problem of the household germs on sponges. Because as Tod says, “You can’t directly track it to the sponge, but food-borne illnesses cause over 3,000 deaths every year.” That’s compared to, uh, 33,000 deaths from car accidents, 27,000 from falls, 36,000 accidental poisonings and 39,000 suicides. But hey! Better to be vigilant, right?

So if you’re the kind of person, like my cousins, who spends a lot of time worrying about the infinitesimal odds of being struck down by marauding household germs, you can now shell out $29.99 (high-gloss color) or $34.99 (stainless steel) for the SpongeBath, a toaster-ish appliance that sucks the filthy, filthy bacteria out of your sponge and pumps it full of citric acid and silver instead. (See the YouTube commercial here! ) How do we know those things are safe? Just ask Tod, who told the Times, “Both of those have been around for thousands of years.” (Of course, so have falls, accidental poisonings and suicide, but never mind that.) Your SpongeBath, available now at Bed Bath & Beyond and, soon, Amazon, is “a home for the sponge,” says Matthew, “and a sponge holder.” But wait! There’s more!

“Everybody has a relationship with their sponge,” Tod told the Times. This is news to me. I wouldn’t say I have a relationship with any of them, but I do have a number of sponges scattered around the house: one in each bathroom, a couple in the basement, and two in the kitchen, one for dishes and one for the floor. Tod looks down on me for this. “People have different ones they use on different surfaces,” he told the Times disdainfully. “What SpongeBath enables you to do is have one sponge and use it with confidence.” Um, Tod? One sponge for all? The kitchen and the bathroom? It’s gonna take more than a little citric acid and silver to get me over that hump.

I replace my sponges when they start to crumble. It is true that sponges don’t last nearly as long as they used to, but that’s not a problem SpongeBath is out to solve. You know what else you can buy on Amazon? Household sponges, at 50 cents apiece. Let’s see, I can spend $29.99 on the SpongeBath, or replace my sponge every week and still have a bunch left over. And that’s not counting the cost of the SpongeBath refill cartridges, each of which lasts just 30 days.

You know what, Matthew and Tod? When your sponge smells bad, that’s nature’s way of telling you to shell out 50 cents for a new one, not nature’s way of telling you to clutter up your kitchen counter with another stupid appliance meant to solve white people problems. For heaven’s sake, get a life, or God knows what non-alarming concern you’ll spend your next 10 years working on. As for you, Joan and Pam, I’m going to go right on putting my leftovers in the fridge as soon as dinner’s done. But I think I know what I’m getting you for Christmas this year.

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