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Preventing Healthcare-Associated Illnesses while Promoting Water Conservation

Healthcare-associated infections (HAIs), also known as nosocomial diseases, are infections contracted by patients while receiving treatment in healthcare facilities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that nearly 2 million people are infected with HAIs each year. Most of these individuals spend an extra 6.5 days in the hospital. They are also five times more likely to be readmitted after discharge and are twice as likely to die shortly after leaving the hospital–and in fact, nearly 100,000 people die due to HAIs each year.

It is estimated that as many as one-third of HAIs are preventable. While proper cleaning can play a major role in reducing these illnesses, the most effective way to combat them is through thorough and frequent hand washing. However, studies now indicate that many of the benefits of effective hand washing are lost as soon as the user touches the handles on a faucet. In fact, it is not just faucet handles that may harbor the bacteria that can cause HAIs; the same germs and bacteria are often found on the flush handles of toilets and urinals as well. The issue is that even after washing our hands, we often recontaminate them by touching things in the restroom–including fixtures—after washing.

Researchers at the University of Arizona tested surfaces in hospitals, fast-food restaurants, and what were termed “high-traffic” facilities such as airports looking for coliforms. Coliforms are a type of bacteria found in the colon or in feces, and their presence is often viewed as an indicator of fecal contamination in water supplies. If these bacteria and other organisms get on a person’s hands or under their fingernails, they may then follow what some public health officials refer to as the “fingertips-to-lips” port of entry into the body, possibly resulting in an HAI.

Just over 17 percent of the 248 hospital surfaces sampled were found to be contaminated with coliforms. This was somewhat less than fast-food restaurants, where 22 percent of the surfaces were contaminated, and high-traffic areas, where 24 percent were contaminated. However, the big difference between the presence of bacteria in a medical facility versus in a fast-food restaurant or airport is that many of the people in hospitals already have a weakened immune system and are therefore more at risk to infection.

The study also found that the highest percentage of coliforms was found on restroom areas such as sinks, faucets, soap dispensers, and other fixtures. In fact, another study, this one by Rutgers University, found that the rate of cross-contamination between a faucet handle and clean hands can be as high as 72.4 percent.

What does this mean for facilities trying to reduce HAIs? Clearly, reducing the frequency with which people must touch bathroom fixtures is paramount. This is why installing “touchless” fixtures can help break the chain of infection.

Interestingly, touchless fixtures also help the environment because they promote sustainability. In other words, they help medical locations—which consume huge volumes of water—to use water more efficiently.

For instance, studies indicate that sensor-controlled faucets, which require no touching, can reduce water consumption by as much as 30 percent. When working properly, sensor-controlled fixtures rate very high in water efficiency.  This is because water is released only when needed and turned off as soon as the user walks away.

Unfortunately, studies indicate that touchless sensory devices on toilets and urinals provide only marginal water savings. However, water can be saved by installing low-flow toilets and no-flow urinal systems. Low-flow toilets use about 1.28 gallons of water per flush, while no-flow urinals use no water and do not have flush handles, eliminating the touch factor altogether.  These may be the ultimate in water efficiency.

The results of these studies indicate that the installation of touchless fixtures–whether they are equipped with sensors or require no flush handles at all–in healthcare facilities may help reduce HAIs. Such fixtures can also help medical locations use water more efficiently, reducing not only consumption but water-related maintenance and costs as well.

A frequent speaker and author on water conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is the founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc., makers of waterless urinals and other restroom products. Reichardt founded the company in 1991 with the goal of establishing a new market segment in the plumbing fixture industry with water conservation in mind. He may be reached at Klaus@waterless.com.

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