We don’t usually associated washing machines with bacteria; after all, things that are built for cleaning are supposed to help remove and kill harmful microorganisms. Unfortunately, a new study warns that even the best energy-efficient washing machines could harbor superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics.
And, more importantly, these washing machines could be in operation at a hospital.
At least, that is the case in this recent study. A recent investigation into a German hospital where they found drug-resistant Klebsiella oxytoca, traced the outbreak to a washing machine. Fortunately, the contamination—which was repeatedly exposed to, but not infecting newborns—stopped once they took the machine away. Apparently, the bacteria was transferring from the machine to knit caps and socks used to keep babies warm.
This bacteria can cause severe infection but also requires a vulnerable host. Fortunately, most people can be exposed to such drug-resistant strains of bacteria but experience no infection. In fact, many people can even have the bacteria colonize with them and still have no infection: it occurs quite often among health care workers.
Lead study author Dr. Ricarda Schmithausen advises that this case is highly unusual, particularly for a hospital, because it involved a household-type washing machine. Typically, hospitals use special, industrial washing machines with extremely high temperatures and where they use powerful disinfectants. Home washing machines, of course, tend to clean at a lower temperature—to save energy—and most are not always able to kill every type of germ, particularly those that might be drug-resistant.
Again, it is fortunate that they were able to figure out the source of the outbreak quickly, and determine that replacing the machines would be the solution. Furthermore, experts advise that these washing machines could be redesigned to better prevent residual water from accumulating, which is where germs can easily grow and contaminate the machine and the clothing therein.
In addition, study co-author Dr. Martin Exner, of the University of Bonn, comments, “If elderly people requiring nursing care with open wounds or bladder catheters, or younger people with suppurating injuries or infections live in the household, laundry should be washed at higher temperatures, or with efficient disinfectants, to avoid transmission of dangerous pathogens.”
He also adds, “This is a growing challenge for hygienists,a s the number of people receiving nursing care from family members is constantly increasing.”