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It may be time to rethink policies that allow hospital employees to home-launder scub attire, as significant levels of bacteria can remain on the clothing even after washing, researchers have found.
“Hospital scrubs that people took home and laundered almost had as many opportunistic pathogens as the ones tested at the end of their shifts,” says Charles Gerba, PhD, professor of environmental microbiology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, who compared hospital-laundered and home-laundered scrubs. ( 1)
Getting rid of pathogens on hospital scrubs is more difficult than it would seem. In studies of laundry, Gerba found that about 95% of people wash their clothes in lukewarm or cold water. Only intense heat in the washer and dryer kills most organisms, he says.
“[Routine washing] is really designed to get rid of dirt, not bacteria. It only eliminates about 80% of bacteria during a wash. It sounds like a lot, but you’re starting out with huge numbers,” he says. “Some bacteria survive that washing over and over again.”
The risk isn’t just hypothetical. Three cases of a deep sternal wound infection in patients who had coronary artery bypass surgery were linked to a nurse anesthetist whose scrubs were colonized with Gordonia bronchialis. An investigation indicated that the nurse’s washing machine was the “likely environmental reservoir” for the organism. After the nurse replaced the washing machine, her scrubs were no longer colonized with the bacteria.(2)
--Michele Marill, Hospital Employee Health
1. Nordstrom JA, Reynolds KA and Gerba CP. Comparison of bacteria on new, disposable, laundered, and unlaundered hospital scrubs. Amer Jrl Infect Control 2012; 40:539-543.
2. Wright SN, Gerry JS, Busowski MT, et al. Gordonia bronchialis sternal wound infection in 3 patients following open heart surgery: Intraoperative transmission from a healthcare worker. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 2012; 33:1238-1241.