Once used cloths enter the bag of soiled linens, they begin a journey — from washing to drying to storing — that must be closely monitored to ensure bacteria isn’t reintroduced to a clean, germ-free environment.

“Laundering is an area I continue to be concerned about,” says Heller. “Many healthcare facilities are not doing an adequate job of laundering their cleaning tools. The ability to keep clean and soiled products separate, and avoid recontamination in the handling process is something that a number of hospitals struggle with.”

Andrew Streifel, hospital environment specialist in the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, University of Minnesota Medical Center, has inspected a number of laundry facilities in which clean laundry has been contaminated due to transportation and storage issues.

“All laundry material should be protected from dirt and kept in a dry storage space,” he says. “I’ve seen people jack hammering right outside laundry storage spaces in hospitals, and that kind of disruption needs to be modified.”

Hicks recommends storing clean cloths in a plastic bag to avoid contamination.

“I’ve seen facilities dump dirty cloths out on a table, launder and dry them, and then dump them back on the same table without cleaning the table first,” he says. “How they’re handled and stored after they come out of the dryer is important.”

To kill bacteria, McCauley recommends washing cotton cloths in chlorine bleach with a water temperature of 150 degrees Fahrenheit. When washing microfiber, he advises against aggressive chlorine bleach products that could degrade the fiber.

“You need high temperatures to dry cotton materials; however, microfiber releases moisture more easily and therefore requires a little less drying energy and time,” he says. “Also, you don’t want to use fabric softener products on either cotton or microfiber rags.”

But are laundered cleaning cloths free from potentially harmful bacteria? Dr. Charles Gerba, a professor in the department of soil, water, and environmental science at the University of Arizona, conducted a study of bacteria in reusable cloths in 10 hospitals and found that 93 percent of the cloths contained bacteria after being washed. Gerba also found a wide variation in vendors’ laundry processes, indicating that washing practices affect microbial loads.

“Whether or not laundering removes bacteria goes back to the quality of the laundry process,” says Heller. “It’s critical that environmental services managers work with their chemical providers and their laundry experts to design a wash formula — which includes not only chemicals but the wash process itself — to make sure they get the right level of disinfection and the removal of the soil.”

According to Tinker, organizations such as the Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council and the Textile Rental Services Association evaluate healthcare laundry operations to certify that their processes produce hygienically clean textiles.

“Our experience has been that an accredited or certified professional laundry operation effectively kills all bacteria in soiled cleaning cloths,” he says.

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