March 31, 2011 -- Electronic faucets may be touch-free, but they are far from germ-free. In a new study, researchers at The Johns Hopkins School of Medicine report finding higher levels of disease-carrying bacteria on hands-free faucets compared to conventional, manually operated faucets. Their discovery led to the removal of all such faucets in clinical areas at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the cancellation of plans to install hands-free models in a hospital building now under construction.
“We didn’t want to put patients at risk,” study author Emily Sydnor, MD, an infectious disease fellow at Hopkins, said in a news briefing.
For the study, which was presented today in Dallas at the annual meeting of the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America, Sydnor and her team examined 20 newly installed electronic faucets and 20 manual faucets spread out over three hospital wards. They took water samples from each faucet over a six-week period beginning in December 2008. They also dismantled and cultured four of the electronic faucets.
Of the 108 water cultures taken from the electronic faucets, half were found to have grown the bacterium Legionella spp., which causes Legionnaire’s disease. Only 15% of the manual faucets were contaminated.
Attempts to clean the faucet components with chlorine dioxide were only partially successful. After flushing them with disinfectant, 29% of the electronic faucets tested positive for bacteria, compared to 7% percent of the manual faucets.
Hands-Free Faucets Harmful to Hospital Patients?
Dismantling the electronic faucets, all the same make and model, allowed the researchers to pinpoint the problem areas.
“There are five extra parts that you don’t have in a manual faucet,” Sydnor said. “Every single one of these parts grew legionella and had a higher bacteria count.”
Legionnaire’s disease has pneumonia-like symptoms -- high fever, chills, cough -- and is treated with antibiotics. The CDC estimates that 8,000 to 18,000 people are hospitalized each year because of the disease. Five percent to 30% of cases are fatal.
Sydnor’s study is not the first to reveal problems with electronic faucets. The authors of a 2001 study -- focusing on a different model -- described the hands-free faucets they investigated as “a continuing source of bacteria potentially hazardous to patients.”
The risk from electronic faucets is particularly high in hospitals for two reasons. Because of illness, patients are often more susceptible to infection. And because their movements are limited, they use the same sinks throughout the day, increasing the number of exposures to bacteria.
Healthy people, Sydnor said, do not need to avoid electronic faucets. In fact, Hopkins has no plans to remove the electronic faucets from general use areas of the hospital.
“The general public is coming and going, likely using the bathroom only one time, so there’s no high exposure and much less risk,” Sydnor said.