hidden kitchen hazards and dangers

While we’re not alarmists, we still think it’s good to be aware of safety in the kitchen beyond “Don’t cut yourself.” You’ve probably heard of avocado hand by now, and know to be careful when wielding your knives and other sharp objects anyway. Spoiled food usually tells you itself that it’s unsafe (which is good, since expiration dates on packages may not actually be a helpful indicator).

But there are other causes for concern that, even if some seem obvious, you might not think much about, or even be aware of. After consulting experts and reading lots of safety recommendations, we put together this list of 10 unexpected kitchen hazards, and some suggestions about how to prevent them.

1. Rinsing Raw Meat and Poultry. Though many people still believe it’s beneficial to rinse raw meat and poultry, Dean Cliver, PhD, former Institute of Food Technologists member, told us back in 2008 that the USDA had backed off the idea—and in fact, the organization’s website still says there’s no need to do so. “Sometimes you may buy a chicken, and it has salmonella. If you cook it thoroughly, it would kill it,” Cliver said. “Washing it might spread the salmonella around.” Check out our additional safe chicken handling tips.

2. A Greasy Range Hood and Filter. Captain Peggy Harrell of the Plano Fire Department in Texas says grease that has accumulated under your range hood and on the filter is “just the kind of thing that can start a grease fire.” Keep the underside of your hood clean, and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for changing the filter regularly.

3. Radon Gas. Radon is a radioactive gas generated in rock soil that causes lung cancer—and sometimes collects in homes. The EPA says that radon is often found in water (people using wells rather than municipal water systems are at a higher risk), and is released when the water is agitated, as when washing dishes. There is a slim chance that some granite countertops could emit radon, although according to the EPA, “Radon originating from the soil beneath homes is a more common problem and a far larger public health risk than radon from granite building materials.” The gas is not detectable by sight, smell, or taste, so the EPA suggests testing for it. Hardware stores sell inexpensive kits you can use to check the radon levels in your home.

4. No Fire Extinguisher. Do you have a fire extinguisher near your kitchen? Captain Harrell says you should (she even suggests that you give extinguishers as housewarming gifts). Look for an extinguisher that works on class A (ordinary combustibles), B (flammable liquids), and C (electrical fires), often called a multipurpose dry chemical extinguisher.

5. Dirty Sponges. Sponges harbor disease-causing bacteria and spread those bacteria around kitchens. A study by microbiologist Carlos Enriquez at the University of Arizona found salmonella in about 15 percent of the sponges examined. Research shows that microwaving sponges for about one minute sterilizes them, but be sure the sponge is wet; a dry sponge can catch fire in a microwave.

6. Carbon Monoxide (CO). CO is another invisible, odorless gas that could be hanging around in your kitchen. The EPA says at moderate levels it causes headaches, dizziness, nausea, and fainting—and at high levels it can be fatal. The gas is emitted anytime combustion appliances (such as gas stoves) are used, but dangerous levels occur only when these appliances are misused or misadjusted. To be safe, the EPA suggests that you have your gas range and oven inspected annually by a professional; never use a gas oven to heat your home; and never burn charcoal indoors. You can pick up CO test kits and alarms/detectors at hardware stores or online.

7. Mold. The EPA says that mold exposure can cause allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems. Mold grows in areas where moisture accumulates, such as near leaky plumbing (check under your kitchen sink). The organization says that water-damaged areas should be dried “within 24 to 48 hours to prevent mold growth.” If you have a mold problem, the agency recommends decreasing indoor humidity by fixing leaks, using dehumidifiers, and turning on exhaust fans whenever cooking or using the dishwasher.

8. Overloaded Circuits. The U.S. Fire Administration says that in urban areas, faulty wiring accounts for 33 percent of residential fires; many avoidable electrical fires are caused by overloaded circuits. Older apartments often have few outlets, so tenants use extension cords or power strips. But this isn’t safe, according to the FEMA publication Residential Building Electrical Fires. Because heat-producing cooking appliances use a lot of power, you should be particularly careful where you plug them in.

9. Bad Storage Habits in the Refrigerator. Don’t just cram things into your fridge wherever they fit—pay attention to what goes where. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service suggests placing raw meat, seafood, and poultry in sealed containers or plastic bags to prevent their juices from contaminating other foods. Placing them on the lowest shelf helps, too. Here are more tips on proper fridge food storage:

10. Leaving High Heat Unattended. Peggy Harrell says that the most important thing you can to do be safe in the kitchen is to stay close when using high heat on the stovetop. If you must answer the door or the phone, she suggests keeping a spoon or a potholder in your hand so you have a visual reminder to get back to the kitchen ASAP.

This post was originally published on September 10, 2008 and has been updated with new links, text, and images.

Header image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Roxanne Webber is a former editor at CHOW.
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