Healthcare News & Insights

Sinks may spread bacteria in hospitals

Proper hand hygiene is critical to stopping the spread of hospital-acquired infections. To promote hand washing, some hospitals may install extra sinks for the convenience of clinical staff. However, in some cases, sinks may actually spread infectious bacteria throughout hospitals. 

ThinkstockPhotos-461758085It may seem counterintuitive, but sinks can contribute to infectious outbreaks in hospitals. An article published on the health and science news site STAT lays out how this can happen in a facility.

Where germs lurk

According to the STAT article, there are two primary problems with sinks.

The first issue: Since municipal water isn’t sterile, the water flowing into the sink may contain dangerous bacteria. While this is true of all tap water, bugs that would cause no issue for a healthy person may put patients with vulnerable immune systems in danger.

Second, the drainpipes in sinks are excellent environments for bacterial growth. Water-dwelling bacteria come together and create colonies in pipes called biofilms. These biofilms stick to surfaces in pipes, and they’re particularly common inside the U-shaped area that’s designed to drain the contents of sinks.

Both types of contamination are nearly impossible for hospitals to remove, especially biofilms. Even if biofilms are removed, they almost always reform in a sink’s pipes.

To add to this, hospital sinks are often used to dispose of patient specimens (such as urine). IV bags are also regularly drained in sinks. Any bacteria lurking in these waste products may further contaminate sinks – and they may even spread as staff wash their hands after disposal.

Some argue that different sinks should be used to dispose of patient specimens and to wash clinicians’ hands. However, the downside to this practice would be that staff couldn’t wash their hands immediately after handling potentially infectious material. Plus, they’d have to transport this material to a different area of the hospital, increasing the chance that the container will leak or spill on the way.

Putting patients in danger?

It’s hard to quantify the risks of the bacterial contaminants in sinks. However, there have been several cases where hospital infections have been directly tied to sinks. The STAT article references a case where 36 patients in one hospital’s intensive care unit were infected by drug-resistant bacteria and five of them died.

Investigation revealed that ICU sinks with gooseneck faucets caused the spread of the bacteria. The water pressure from the faucets caused backsplash, and water infected with contaminants from the sink ended up on porous surfaces where staff kept equipment used in patient care, including tubing.

Once the hospital stopped using the sinks, the problem disappeared.

The facility has since made changes when using sinks with gooseneck faucets that reduce the risk of spreading germs, including:

  • running the faucet off to the side instead of directly into the drain
  • making sure the sink is deep enough so water won’t splash onto clothing or equipment, and
  • storing only waterproof items near the sink.

Alternative design

Other hospitals have tried to lower the risk of contamination being spread with faucets by changing their design entirely, swapping out traditional faucets with taps for “electronic eye faucets,” which are activated via sensor instead.

Not only do these sinks have a different water flow, they’re also believed to promote better hand hygiene since clinicians don’t have to touch any surfaces to operate them.

However, even sinks with electronic eye faucets may be breeding germs. Because they have more internal valves that operate with the electronic mechanism, they have more surfaces where biofilms can form.

Lowering risks

Hospitals need to keep all these factors in mind when talking to providers about the importance of hand hygiene.

Due to the potential risk of contamination from sinks, some organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommend that clinical staff only use sinks for hand washing if:

  • their hands have been exposed to a contaminant that alcohol-based hand sanitizer won’t remove (e.g., C. diff, norovirus)
  • their hands are visibly dirty
  • they’re about to eat, or
  • they’ve just used the bathroom.

In all other cases, hand sanitizer is a better alternative, and it eliminates the chance that bacteria lurking in sinks will spread throughout a facility. While it doesn’t entirely replace the need for thorough hand washing, hand sanitizer can help reduce the risks of infection that arise from using sinks.

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