Johns Hopkins study: Hands-free faucets harbor germs

Apr 12 2011 - 4:01am

Hands-free electronic faucets can save a lot of water -- and because you don't have to touch them with your grubby fingers to turn them on, have widely been assumed to help fight the spread of germs, too.

But a team at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore has discovered that at their facility, electronic faucets were more likely to be contaminated with Legionella bacteria than the old-fashioned manual type.

So much more likely that the hospital actually ripped out the new-fangled plumbing in patient care areas, and elected to purchase traditional fixtures for new clinical buildings that are set to open in 2012.

"Newer is not necessarily better when it comes to infection control in hospitals," said Johns Hopkins infectious disease expert Dr. Lisa Maragakis, in a statement. Maragakis was the senior investigator on the research.

Initially, the team wasn't seeking to compare traditional and automatic faucets. Rather, it planned to test new faucets to see how often they needed to be flushed out with the treated water hospitals use to combat waterborne bacterial infestations.

But when it became apparent that the automatic faucets harbored far higher levels of Legionella than the manual ones -- the bacteria were present in 50 percent of cultured water samples from the electronic-eye faucets tested, but in only 15 percent of manual faucets tested in the same part of the hospital -- the investigators switched gears.

It is believed the bacteria counts are higher in the electronic faucets because they have a complicated system of valves that is difficult to clean, researchers said.

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