Is Hospital Laundry Clean Enough?

On The Quick

Is Hospital Laundry Clean Enough?

Washing may not actually disinfect

By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN
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As if there weren’t enough things for nurses to worry about, the way hospitals manage laundry is now under scrutiny.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona and published in the American Journal of Infection Control reports that disease-causing bacteria often survive the laundry process and may contribute to the more than 1.7 million hospital-acquired infections that occur each year. The study was supported by Kimberly-Clark, a leading supplier of disposable products for the healthcare industry.

Clean, Not Disinfected

The research team, led by Charles Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, found infectious bacteria like E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae in 93 percent of the reusable cloths and towels used to clean hospital rooms. Even with disinfectant, more than two-thirds of soak buckets also contained high levels of coliform and spore-forming microbes.

Gerba warns that facilities should carefully examine their laundry practices for reusable cleaning cloths and towels. “Hospitals need to better define washing procedures … (i.e., prescribed use of correct doses of bleach, temperature of washing and length of washing) or use disposable disinfecting/cleaning cloths as much as possible,” he says.

When Washing Makes it Worse

A companion study conducted by the same research team reached an even more alarming conclusion: Hospital laundry procedures for reusable towels actually reduced the effectiveness of hospital-strength disinfectants by as much as 85.3 percent. An earlier study led by Gerba, published in the American Journal of Infection Control in 2012, also found that home-laundered scrubs (still allowed in some facilities) contained higher levels of bacteria than hospital-laundered or disposable scrubs.

“It is very concerning to think that the very process by which hospitals are trying to prevent the spread of bacteria may actually be causing it,” says Gerba. Whether alone or in combination, the presence of bacteria on the towels and the inactivation of the cleaning agent may increase the risk for transmission of path-ogens in hospitals.”

These observations indicate the need to critically reevaluate current hospital cleaning practices associated with reuse of cloth towels.

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