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A Sinking Feeling: Infection Risk in Shallow Sinks

Oct 16, 2019 10:00:00 AM    posted in Infection Prevention

In the world of infection control, new research is always appearing that surprises us with discoveries about diseases spreading through caregiver environments in ways no one would have considered. A spate of recent studies has done just that, demonstrating that despite the best efforts of the healthcare industry, everyone has been overlooking one simple source of infection risk right in front of us: the sink. Sinks, it seems, can sometimes undermine the most strict adherence to hand hygiene protocol; these necessary hand-hygiene helpers have doubled as secret infection vectors due to hidden design flaws. 

Understanding this can help healthcare correct the problem, reducing infection risk and improving the value of hand-hygiene adherence. With that in mind, let’s explore the hidden risk hospital sinks pose, and what caregivers can do to eliminate it. 


Shallow Sinks: A Bigger Problem Than You’d Think

One recent study found that it’s the depth of the sink that counts. Researchers at the University of Michigan Health System discovered that the backsplashes shallow sink bowls generate can send washed-off viruses and bacteria splattering onto the hands and clothing of a caregiver or patient. It’s not just visible splashes that are a concern, either – shallow sinks can spread contaminants up to four feet away.

The types of bacteria hiding in – and possibly flying out of – hospital sinks, it seems, are not benign. A study from the Medical College of Wisconsin recently identified the bacteria Klebsiella pneumoniae carbapenemase, one prime culprit for deadly hospital-acquired infections, in hospital sinks. Most tellingly, this bacteria was present in only 22 percent of sinks near entry doors and 78 percent of sinks placed near toilets, indicating some connection between where the sink is located and its proneness to bacterial contamination. 


Faucets, Pipes, and Hidden Bacteria

There may be unseen infection potential lurking in the plumbing as well. The University of Michigan study points to the areas of the sink that can’t be cleaned, farther up in the faucet, as hotbeds of bacterial growth. Furthermore, a  study discussed on Fierce Healthcare found that microbes congregate in the pipes that drain handwashing sinks. Although there has not been a demonstrated mode of transmission from an outgoing pipe to the hands of a caregiver, the presence of those pathogens – including resistant bacteria – in the plumbing in ICUs and other areas, points to the need for further study.   


Steps You Can Take to Secure the Sink
Some simple operational fixes can go a long way in preventing sinks from acting as secret vectors for the spread of pathogens. The following are infection risk reduction strategies to consider: 

  • • Installing simple, cost-effective guards on shallower sinks can prevent both the splashes you see and the invisible ones. 

  • • Even if there are usable sinks near toilets, directing traffic to those "cleaner" sinks near entryways when possible could be a safer alternative.

  • • Even if it is not immediately possible, it could be wise to consider installing deeper sinks in newly built hospital units or using them as replacements during a redesign. 

Most importantly, remaining aware of the latest studies on the spread of pathogens in hospitals – whether through sinks or some otherwise unconsidered source, will allow you to hone your infection risk reduction strategy so that your protocols for eliminating hospital-acquired infections are as effective as possible.


Outsmarting Infection with Ventyv® 

With new studies constantly improving the medical community’s understanding of how disease spreads, staying up to date saves money, resources, and even lives. We’re here to keep you apprised of the latest infection control developments, and provide you with hand protection products to put your infection prevention strategy into practice. 

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