Sanitary Surfaces Create Healthier Kitchens

First, people were warned to steer clear of spinach, then it was scallions and later, romaine lettuce. The food recalls of recent memory proved one thing to us: Sanitary measures can be a matter of life or death.

A cursory look around the Internet will show that we’re still in the infancy of truly innovative sanitary surface design. Most of the attention on that subject has been focused on commercial manufacture for the hospitality industry or in spaces where germs are an especially significant threat, such as hospitals and nursing homes.

But specifying or suggesting to a health-conscious client the inclusion of products that promote an environment hostile to germs and other bacteria is not just another potential profit center, it’s good sense. The consumer can’t always control what comes into the kitchen, but making sanitary surfaces part of the design can provide the user with a healthier kitchen experience.

Countertops are not the only surfaces to consider; any place a client’s next meal or exposed skin might possibly touch should be as easy to keep clean as possible, which means making sure to include low-Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emitting products, sinks that are resistant to water absorption and specialty appliances that aid the client in maintaining a germ-hostile environment.

Careful Countertops

Anyone who has ever had to scrub a tile shower can testify that tiles, while offering almost unlimited design potential, can become unsanitary over time, and this common wisdom applies to tile in the kitchen as well. The grout that holds countertop or backsplash tiles in place is nook-and-cranny central, and there will always be places a client’s scrubber sponge won’t be able to reach. This is the perfect breeding ground for mildew growth, which can activate allergies and aggravate asthma.

But what if your client loves tile and nothing else will do? A simple solution is to include a waterproofing acrylic finish in the tile application process: After installation, coat the grout with the colorless finish to cut the risk of mold, mildew and other bacterial growth.

Another option is to select tiles that have antibacterial treatments added in during the mixing process. Rutland, VT-based Questech’s Q-Seal tiles are natural stone tiles featuring permanent waterproofing and the inclusion of Ultra-Fresh, the firm’s signature antimicrobial protection.

Microban, an antimicrobial that works at the cellular level to disrupt key cell functions within bacterial microbes, is included in Laticrete’s SpectraLock grouts, which are available in 40 colors, and are resistant to stain-causing mold and mildew.

Additionally, SpectraLock is Greenguard certified for low-VOC emissions and does not require any additional sealants.
Microban is also a component of Cosentino’s Silestone natural quartz surfaces. Quartz has long been lauded for its sanitary properties and ease of maintenance since, unlike “natural” stones like granite, quartz is non-porous and requires no chemical sealing to make it stain resistant. With Silestone, Cosentino sees the built-in antimicrobial protection as adding yet another layer of protection.

Soapstone, too, is non-porous, requires no chemical sealing and does not absorb stains or liquids. It is also resistant to acids and alkalis. If the client is concerned about maintaining the luster of a soapstone countertop but does not want to use chemicals, advise the person that soapstone can be maintained organically by applying mineral oil to bring out its natural patina.

Non-Porous, No Problem

When it comes to keeping surfaces sanitary, non-porosity is key. Using porous materials that can absorb water and subsequently hold onto it increases the chances of cross-contamination from growing bacteria. By contrast, materials that have withstood long-term firing under intense heat, such as vitreous china, fire clay, glass and porcelain, have extremely low rates of water absorption. Most residential tiles specified for use in the kitchen – be it on a backsplash or on a high-traffic floor – have between 0.5-3% rate of absorption, making them virtually waterproof, according to Tile of Spain.

Glass is another natural option. “Glass countertops don’t require any long-term maintenance such as sealants, polishing, stain removal or burn repair,” says Doris Rocklin of Boisbriand, Quebec, Canada-based ThinkGlass. “Maintenance is as simple as wiping the surface with any common glass cleaning product,” she adds.

Finally, stainless steel has long been a popular choice for appliances, and in recent years, has increasingly been on countertops. It is relatively easy to clean and has been touted by health professionals for its antibacterial properties.
But for the client who wants the sanitary benefits of stainless steel yet desires a warmer look, copper offers a more traditional aesthetic. Products like Frigo Design’s copper countertops and line of “fingerprintless” stainless steel for countertop applications can address this need.

While stainless steel is known for its germ-repellent/germ-killing properties, a recent study by Dr. Bill Keevil, director of environmental healthcare at Southampton University in England, showed e. coli lived an average of four hours on a copper surface, compared with a stainless steel top, where 10% of the bacteria was still alive after 34 days. Copper is currently being tested to see what effect it has on superviruses such as clostridium difficile and antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus infections, both which can be present in food sources and transmitted through touch.

Avoiding Cross-Contamination

Since no one lives in a vacuum, it’s to be expected that clients often share their homes with children and pets. Likewise, they will likely be handling raw food items in their kitchen. Having a germ-hostile countertop is a good start, but is not the only sanitary measure worth considering.

For clients with special needs, such as immune deficiency disorders, including specialty sanitary appliances can be key. Kitchen-sized autoclaves are one option; Korea-based Nawooel makes a countertop kitchen sterilizer/sanitizer that uses ultraviolet radiation to sterilize items such as implements used to cut, tenderize or that in any way touch raw meats, or utensils and plates used by especially vulnerable groups such as infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Placing the sterilizer in the work triangle nearest to where the food preparation takes place cuts down on the need to transfer dirty utensils to the sink, cutting down on the risk of cross-contamination.

If the concept of a personal autoclave is not a preferred solution, including a second prep sink in the design has the same effect by confining utensils used in raw food prep to a space away from where dishes and utensils are washed and stored.

Hands-Off Helping

Hands-free is the last line of defense – if they don’t touch it, it won’t get dirty. Many companies now offer hands-free faucets, which have the added eco-bonus of aiding in water conservation by shutting off when the sensor does not detect an object in front of it.

The battery-powered iTouchless hands-free trashcan uses an infrared sensor to detect when something is within 6" of its lid; the lid then opens and closes after the user has deposited trash.

With other hands-free items on the market such as soap dispensers and light switches, it’s easier than ever to prevent the spread of germs and design a truly healthy kitchen.

For more about green design, also read FusionDesign-Themed Showhouse Features ‘Green’ Focus, Breathing Easy, Firm Infuses New Life into Vintage Showhouse, Sleek and Green Define Kitchen and Bath Design, Green Countertops are Wide Ranging, High-Style Appliances Promote Safety and Energy Efficiency, It’s Easier Than Ever Being Green, Taking Steps Toward ‘Greener’ Kitchen Design, ‘Living Home’ Embraces Environmental Elements and Residential Project Featuring 3,000 Sq. Ft. of Italian Tile Honored for Sustainability and Style

For more green design resources, check out the Green Design section of the Helpful Links section.