Bacteria likely hiding in your household washing machine

Bacteria likely hiding in your household washing machine

When multidrug-resistant pathogens kept reappearing on the skin of premature babies in a German hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit, investigators were confused.

Tests for contamination in the incubators, as well as among healthcare workers who came into contact with the preemies, were all coming up negative, according to a report on the case published Friday by the American Society for Microbiology.

But tests showed the babies were continually being reinfected with Klebsiella oxytoca, a bacteria notorious for hospital-acquired infections such as pneumonia, urinary tract infection, soft tissue infection and a type of blood poisoning which often leads to septic shock.

It wasn’t until investigators began testing the knitted socks and hats given to the babies to keep them warm that they found the source of the bacteria, which they then traced back to the hospital laundry room.

There, they found the hospital was using a household energy-saving washing machine — not the industrial kind that wash at high temperatures with disinfectants and are typically found in a hospital setting.

The Klebsiella oxytoca bacteria were found in the detergent drawer and on the rubber door seal of the household washing machine, as well as two sinks in the area. When they removed the machine from the hospital, the infections finally stopped.

Fortunately, none of the babies became sick from the prolonged bacterial exposure. But the case did expose a potential hazard with household laundry.

Energy-efficient trade off

Household washing machines of any type will remove dirt and stains from your clothes, towels and sheets, but they don’t sterilize them. We used to use chlorine and peroxide-based disinfectants when washing our clothes, and hospitals still do. We also used more hot water while washing and higher temperature settings in the drying cycle, all good for killing germs.

But environmental concerns have changed the way we do our laundry.