A surprising infection risk: Hospital sinks

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Many hospitals looking to improve infection control install more hand-washing stations to encourage staff to wash up, but those sinks may actually help spread dangerous bacteria.

Some hand-washing sinks have been linked to the spread of bacteria in hospitals across the country and the world, according to an article from STAT. The sinks pose two problems: the water coming into them can contain bacteria and sinks--including the pipes that drain them--are perfect places for bacteria to grow.

It creates a conundrum for hospitals, because hand-washing is the most basic key point of infection control plans, STAT reports.

“The thing about the sinks is that they’re the cornerstone of infection control policy. … All of the (hospital) guidelines in the developed world talk about having sinks--the ratio of sinks per beds and where they are and that sort of thing,” Michael Gardam, M.D., director of infection control at University Health Network, a system that includes four Toronto hospitals, told STAT.

Hospitals have common strategies to combat the bacteria growth, but those tactics rarely eliminate the microbes fully, instead merely cutting down on the population for a while.

However, it is not entirely clear how much of a threat these bacteria colonies pose, according to the article, as they often form in outgoing pipes. This means that in theory healthcare workers who use the sinks would not come in contact with potentially infected water. Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found no evidence that bacteria is transferred from the pipes to hands, further tests are ongoing.

One way to solve the problem is to have staff use alcohol-based disinfecting gels more frequently. Although some studies have shown that efforts to encourage better handwashing has led to an increase in dermatitis among healthcare workers. 

 

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