Can Hospital Sinks Harbour Dangerous Bacteria?
As awareness of the benefits of good hygiene, and in particular hand hygiene has increased in hospitals and other healthcare environments we have seen a corresponding rise in the number of sinks available for staff, patients and visitors. This is because germs and bacteria can easily be transmitted from one person to another via their hands. Therefore, it makes good sense that additional sinks and wash facilities can help to keep people’s hands clean and so reduce the number of instances where this unwanted transmission can occur.
However, the reality has proven to be somewhat different. The intention behind the idea of installing additional hospital sinks and therefore making it easier for handwashing to become more frequent is honest and admirable. Yet the outcome has seen the spread of potentially dangerous bacteria in and around sinks leading to some serious outbreaks of illness in hospitals around the world.
Hospital sinks are closely linked with some outbreaks of infection and illness
The link between contaminated hospital sinks and outbreaks of infection has been proven time and again in recent years. Whenever an outbreak occurs in a hospital, local infection control teams work hard to identify the source so preventive action can be taken quickly. Frequently (although not always), the source of the infection can be traced to one or more sinks that have become contaminated.
Such experiences led to a seemingly-extreme measure being taken in one hospital in the Netherlands. The hospital staff decided to remove the sinks in patient areas in the intensive care unit to try and stop bacteria from spreading as quickly as it previously was. The removal of the sinks had the desired effect – flying in the face of the idea that more sinks were required to help reduce contamination and transmission of dangerous germs and bacteria in hospital settings.
Why are hospital sinks potentially dangerous when it comes to bacteria?
Biofilms, often seen as the slimy coating on pipes and other hard surfaces can harbour communities of bacteria and other microorganisms. Such biofilms can colonise the internal surfaces of pipes, drains, sink traps and even the sinks themselves causing contamination and the potential for bacteria and other germs to spread. The biofilms are often very difficult to remove and even with regular cleaning and disinfecting, it may not be possible to get rid of them completely.
Who is at risk?
Most people are fit and healthy enough to combat bacteria when they encounter it, especially if they are washing their hands and keeping their surroundings clean. However, transfer that situation to a hospital – either in a ward, an augmented care unit or anywhere else where people are sick, immunocompromised, or have undergone an operation or other form of treatment – and the danger is clear. Bacteria is more likely to affect and cause infection in people with depressed immune systems. Some outbreaks have led to serious illness and even death among those involved.
Making sinks safer
It's clear that we need to identify how hospital sinks can be made safer, but also how we can use them to support good hand hygiene habits without exacerbating the problems associated with transmission of bacteria.
We tend to assume things washed down the sink are gone. Yet the evidence suggests that is not the case, and bacteria may simply be there waiting for its next opportunity to find a host
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