Study finds towel-laundering practices may pose health risk

by Shane Henson — June 21, 2013—Laundered towels may not be as clean and germ-free as hospital staff and patients would like to believe, according to a new study published online in the American Journal of Infection Control. According to the study, 93 percent of tested laundered towels used to clean hospital rooms contained bacteria that could result in healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). The study also serves as a warning to custodial staff in other types of facilities.

The study, Microbial Contamination of Hospital Reusable Cleaning Towels, conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona with support from Kimberly-Clark Professional, found that laundering practices were insufficient for removing potentially harmful bacteria from reusable cloth and microfiber towels commonly used to clean hospital rooms.

Of the total number of towels tested, 93 percent contained viable bacteria such as E.coli (causes gastroenteritis), total coliforms (bacteria indicative of fecal matter) and Klebsiella (causes pneumonia, urinary tract infections and other infections). Just as alarming, of the total number of soak buckets containing disinfectant, 67 percent contained viable bacteria, including spore-forming bacteria (causes botulism and tetanus) and coliform bacteria.

A second, separate companion study, Decreased Activity of Commercially Available Disinfectants Containing Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QACs) When Exposed to Cotton Towels, also conducted by the team, found laundered cotton towels can reduce the strength of the hospital-grade disinfectants by up to 85.3 percent.

Given the studies’ results, Kimberly-Clark, a provider of solutions that improve hygiene within healthcare facilities, recommends that hospitals either use a sterilization process to clean re-usable cloth and microfiber towels or switch to disposables, hence decreasing the probability of transferring bacteria to surfaces that patients and employees may come in contact with.