Study: Splashes from shallow hospital sinks are spreading infections

PHILADELPHIA — Who knew that hospital employees washing their hands may actually help spread infections? As hospital personnel of all levels know, hand hygiene is of paramount importance. However, a study by researchers at the University of Michigan Health System finds that shallow hospital sinks can cause contaminants from dirty faucets to splash out and infect nearby objects or people.

The research team analyzed eight different sink designs in four intensive care units (ICUs) in order to gauge the cleanliness of the average hospital sink and faucet. They found that a shallow sink bowl depth can enable potentially contaminated water to splash onto patient care items and equipment, healthcare worker hands, and patient care areas. Sometimes, these contaminants were able to reach objects more than four feet away from the sink!

“The inside of faucets where you can’t clean were much dirtier than expected,” says study author Kristen VanderElzen in a release. “Potentially hazardous germs in and around sinks present a quandary for infection preventionists, since having accessible sinks for hand washing is so integral to everything we promote. Acting on the information we found, we have undertaken a comprehensive faucet replacement program across our hospital.”

To measure grime levels, researchers used adenosine triphosphate (ATP) monitoring. Higher ATP readings were associated with visible biofilm, and cultures found on the sinks grew into mold, harmful bacteria, and other environmental organisms.

Researchers also noted that they discovered aerators (faucet head covers) back on hospital sinks after they had already removed them, indicating a general lack of uniform protocol when it comes to equipment management in hospitals.

The study recommends that hospitals install sink guards, which significantly reduce splashing, on all sinks used by personnel.

“As we learn more about the often stealthy ways in which germs can spread inside healthcare facilities, infection preventionists play an increasingly important role in healthcare facility design – including in the selection of sink and faucet fixtures – as this study illustrates,” comments 2019 APIC President Karen Hoffmann. “Because the healthcare environment can serve as a source of resistant organisms capable of causing dangerous infections, an organization’s infection prevention and control program must ensure that measures are in place to reduce the risk of transmission from environmental sources and monitor compliance with those measures.”

The study was presented at the 46th Annual Conference of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology.