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Since You Asked: Use cloth or paper towels in the kitchen?

I use paper towels instead of dish towels for everything from drying dishes to blotting fried foods. I've heard paper towels are more sanitary but wonder if I'm exposing myself and guests to chemicals by using them so much?

— Tracey L., via email

We can't imagine you use more paper towels in a day than the average restaurant in Jackson County, where inspectors require paper-towel use in some scenarios, namely hand-washing.

That's because hand-washing does three things: loosens bacteria with soap, rinses some of it away with water, then deposits the rest on whatever is used to dry one's hands. So single-use hand-drying items prevent the spread of harmful bacteria, which would seem to outweigh the smaller risk of chemical exposure.

"I have not seen any studies that say that is a significant risk," says Chad Petersen, environmental-health specialist and the county's food-program coordinator,

Nothing in the state's food-handling code suggests paper towels are unsafe in any way, Petersen says, adding that potential exposure of food to toxic chemicals, such as cleaning agents, is one area of concern for health inspectors.

That said, there's an environmental toll of paper towels' manufacture and disposal. Most sources reference chlorine used in bleaching processes, which according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, forms harmful chemicals that end up in air and water. The organization advocates choosing products labeled totally chlorine-free (TCF) or processed chlorine-free (PCF), including such brands as Earth Friendly, Green Forest and Seventh Generation.

To conserve paper, designate dish towels for specific functions in your kitchen: drying dishes, wiping up spills, etc. Don't transfer towels between various tasks and launder them often, at least once a day, in hot water.

Send questions to "Since You Asked, A la carte" Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford OR 97501; email youasked@mailtribune.com.