What’s better for limiting the spread of bacteria in washrooms:
paper towels, or air dryers?
New research funded by a trade organization of paper towel
manufacturers suggests that towels spread less bacteria.
Previous studies have shown mixed results, some finding air dryers
spread more bacteria and others showing they’re as safe as towels. A
review of past studies published in 2012 in the Mayo Clinic
Proceedings suggested that in healthcare settings, at least, “paper
towels should be recommended.”
In the new study, jet air dryers spread 27 times the microbes as
paper towels, and four times more microbes than warm-air machines,
researchers said in a presentation last week in France at a meeting
of the European Tissue Symposium, which sponsored the work.
Lead author Mark Wilcox and his colleagues had volunteers dip gloved
hands into yogurt containing lactobacilli, a type of “friendly”
bacteria. Then, the volunteers dried their hands using jet air
dryers, warm air dryers, and paper towels.
The test was repeated 60 times over six weeks for 20 collections of
From one meter away, the average airborne bacterial counts, measured
in so-called colony-forming units, were 89.5 when the gloved hands
were dried with jet air dryers, 18.7 using warm air dryers, and 2.2
from paper towels.
To assess the potential spread of bacteria visually, individuals
dipped their gloved hands in black paint and wore white disposable
suits backwards with the hoods covering their faces. When they dried
their hands, there were 230 visible spots from the jet air driers
and 130 from the warm air dryers. None were found on people who used
Wilcox, who is a consultant/head of microbiology at Leeds Teaching
Hospitals in the UK, pointed out in email to Reuters Health that
drying hands thoroughly is an important way to avoid spreading
bacteria to other people or surfaces.
“I had made the disconcerting observation that when using some jet
air driers I could feel droplets hitting my face,” said Wilcox of
his interest in doing the study. “For an infection control doctor, a
key principle is to reduce the risk of spread of microbes.”
He and his coauthors say that more research is needed before anyone
can assume the air dryers spread more germs than towels.
In email to Reuters Health, William Gagnon, vice president of
marketing for Excel Dryer, Inc. in East Longmeadow, Massachusetts,
pointed to studies that showed no difference in bacteria with the
different drying methods and others that showed microbes on unused,
recycled paper towels.
Benjamin Tanner, a microbiologist who is president and CEO of
Antimicrobial Test Laboratories in Round Rock, Texas, criticized the
new study for using gloved hands (which he said is unrealistic),
paint spots and a high number of bacteria - and for failing to show
any real health risk.
[to top of second column]
“A well done study would have measured levels of disease-causing
organisms on the hands (which may have been none), then measured the
number of those bacteria that are blown off as a result of drying,”
said Tanner in an email to Reuters Health.
Wilcox replies that the study “purposely contaminated hands with a
high number of bacteria to represent poorly washed hands, and (we)
have justified this decision in our publication.”
Dr. John Segreti told Reuters Health by phone that the study is
interesting and well done. “What they were trying to do was mimic
someone who doesn’t wash their hands carefully,” said Segreti. “It
wasn’t intended as a real-life analysis.”
But Segreti, who was not involved in the study, doesn’t think
bacteria from dryers are much of a health risk.
“In their conclusion, they have a lot of maybes . . . and I think
you have to keep that in mind with this,” said Segreti, an
infectious disease specialist and hospital epidemiologist at Rush
University Medical Center in Chicago.
Importantly, he said, “most of the pathogens people have on their
skin are not spread by the airborne route but by direct (contact).”
“It’s what’s left on your hands after drying that is more important
than what’s aerosolized into the air,” he said.
Segreti also said hospitals tend to use alcohol gel or foam on
patient floors, not air dryers.
“Certainly (they’re) in public restrooms all over the place and how
that translates to transmission in the community is a different
issue. I don’t know of any outbreak yet that’s been traced back to
any of these,” said Segreti.
Before last week's presentation in France, the study was online in
August in the Journal of Hospital Infection.
SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1xwccpO Journal of Hospital Infection, online
August 26, 2014.
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.