Dr. Charles Gerba, a University of Arizona microbiologist known as “Dr. Germ,” spends his days digging into the unseen — uncovering the world of germs, pathogens and bacteria everyone knows exists but prefers not to think about.

Gerba’s recent study of hospital cleaning towels shows why the world of pathogens we live in is something that should be on the minds of jan/san distributors, building service contractors and in-house service providers — especially in hospital settings, where at any given time, approximately one in every 20 patients acquires an infection from these tiny dangers.

These infections cost the U.S. healthcare system as much as $147 billion each year, according to the Journal of Medical Economics, and can lead to these patients paying the ultimate price — their lives.

Recently, Gerba turned his microscope on the microfiber and cotton cloths used to clean hospital rooms. He found that the very tools being used to wipe germs away could be spreading them around.

The study selected 10 Arizona hospitals at random, and collected three clean cloth or microfiber towels from each location. It also collected samples from the inside surface of the bucket used to soak the towels in disinfectant. He then tested the samples for bacteria. What he found was surprising: 93 percent of the laundered towels used to clean hospital rooms contained bacteria — ranging from E. Coli to total coliforms (bacteria indicative of fecal matter) to Klebsiella, all of which could result in hospital acquired infections (HAIs).

“Some cloths actually had E-coli in them after supposedly being cleaned for re-use in hospital rooms,” Gerba says. “E-coli was the main one, but there was a number of other bacteria known to cause HAIs, as well.”

The study points to insufficient laundering practices as one culprit, but also revealed that 67 percent of buckets with disinfectant used to soak cloths contained viable bacteria, including spore-forming bacteria, which can cause botulism and Tetanus.

“It is concerning to think that the very processes hospitals use to prevent the spread of bacteria may actually cause it,” Gerba says.

In a separate companion study, Gerba learned that laundered cotton towels can actually reduce the strength of hospital-grade disinfectants by up to 85.3 percent. The key concern is how to keep microfiber and cotton cloths effective for the longest period of time.

Steven Attman, co-owner of Acme Paper & Supply Co., Inc. of Richmond, Va., explains the study shows that there’s a breakdown occurring caused by the chemicals being used and microorganisms being left behind after laundering.

All of these study findings point to the need for hospital cleaning staffs and infection control experts to rethink their current cleaning practices and products. One way distributors can help healthcare facilities curb cross-contamination is to introduce alternative products, such as wet wipes, disposable wipers and disposable microfiber.

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Cloth Vs. Disposable Towels