Of course, no one would intentionally wipe a hospital room surface with a towel carrying microbial contaminants. And most people would assume a towel soaking in disinfectant would be free from harmful bacteria. But according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, 93 percent of laundered towels used for cleaning and 67 percent of towels soaked in disinfectant harbored viable bacteria. The study, Microbial contamination of hospital reusable cleaning towels, surveyed 10 major hospitals in Arizona and tested towels used for cleaning after laundering for the presence of viable bacteria. The researchers also sampled the buckets in which the towels were soaked in disinfectant.
Most hospitals use cotton towels soaked in disinfectant to clean patient rooms. The typical practice is to soak the towels in disinfectant, wring them out to wipe surfaces, and then wash them in-house or at a central laundering facility so they can be reused. Some hospitals in the study use microfiber cleaning towels, but those harbored significantly more bacteria than the cotton towels. Some of the bacteria found on the towels and disinfectant buckets are known to be involved in healthcare-associated infections (HAIs), including Klebsiella pneumonia, K oxytoca, and E coli.
While the study didn’t determine whether the presence of bacteria on the towels was due to insufficient laundering protocols or storage or handling of laundered towels, the researchers did note significant differences in the number and type of viable bacteria or microbial contaminants among the hospitals in the study. Further study is needed to analyze the reasons for those differences. Possibilities include variations in laundering and cleaning practices, towel materials, storage conditions, and methods of applying disinfectant.