Dr. Charles Gerba, aka “Dr. Germ,” an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona, sampled bulk soap from 541 dispensers in five cities across the United States. The study, published in the March 2011 issue of the “Journal of Environmental Health,” found that 24.8 percent of the samples contained significant levels of bacteria, including coliform bacteria, found in 15.9 percent of samples.

To avoid contaminated soap, the study cites more thorough cleaning of dispensers as a solution, but also acknowledges that containers are difficult to clean sufficiently.  

“[Dispensers] need to be cleaned and dried regularly,” says Benjamin Tanner, president of Antimicrobial Test Laboratories in Austin, Texas. “Just rinsing it with water may not be totally effective.”

To avoid cross-contamination, janitors would need to add time into their cleaning schedules for removing, rinsing, disinfecting and air-drying dispensers, says Linda Silverman, president of Maintex Inc., a distributor in City of Industry, Calif.

“If people were doing that regularly, the study would not have the same results,” adds Tanner.

With cleaning schedules already being reduced, this extra time may be difficult to budget. In addition, cleaning a bulk soap container is difficult because brushes aren’t designed for it and rinsing containers will produce a lot of soap suds, says Darrel Hicks, author of “Infection Prevention for Dummies.”

But lack of time and the physical cleaning of dispensers are only part of the problem. There is a host of other complications involved, says Bill McGarvey, director of training and sustainability at Philip Rosenau Inc., a distributor in Warminster, Pa.

For example, when it’s time for cleaning, what happens to leftover soap in the dispenser? Does it get thrown away? Dumping large concentrations of antimicrobial soap could disrupt the ecology of sewer systems and the bodies of water that they empty into, says McGarvey. To avoid product waste janitors could fill bulk dispensers with less soap, but then they risk running out of soap in busy restrooms.

Instead of cleaning each dispenser, one alternative would be to set up a regular schedule to replace the open bottles instead of topping them off, says Hicks.

“There ought to be a program for assuring they get changed,” he says.

Another alternative would be to switch to bag-in-box or cartridge style soap dispensers. These units use factory-sealed cartridges that quickly snap in place, or utilize factory-sealed bags and fresh nozzles for every refill. Janitors simply open the unit and snap a refill in place.

Dr. Gerba’s study does not examine bacteria in sealed cartridge dispensers, but his team took samples from two dozen for comparison and found no contamination.

Sealed cartridges, however, are significantly more expensive than bulk soap, says Silverman, and the cost can rise even further due to waste — if a maintenance worker sees that the cartridge is low, he or she may throw it away rather than run the risk that it will be empty before the next cleaning. However, depending on the manufacturer, cartridges may be recyclable.

Reluctance to change

McGarvey and his colleagues know of Dr. Gerba’s research, but among clients, “no one has said, ‘We’re getting rid of (our system) based on the study,’” he says.

Building owners with bulk systems in their restrooms are reluctant to change unless they encounter problems with parts or maintenance.
“There’s certainly the mentality that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” says McGarvey.

BSCs should alert their customers to the potential for cross-contamination with bulk dispensers. Then clients can make their own educated decision about adding dispenser cleaning into schedules, occasionally replacing bulk dispensers, switching to sealed-soap systems, or doing nothing at all. Whatever the outcome, customers should at least be aware that the problem exists.

Read more about the potential for bulk soap dispensers to become contaminated here.

David Lewellen is a freelance writer based in Glendale, Wis.

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Bulk Soap Dispensers: Examining The Potential For Bacterial Contamination