Jet air hand dryers shouldn’t be used in hospital toilets because they spread more germs than disposable paper towels, scientists have warned.
A study carried out in three hospitals found contamination, including from faecal and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, was “significantly higher” in toilets on the days that jet air dryers were in use compared to paper towels.
The problem lies in people not washing their hands properly, say scientists, which means microbes get blown off by the jet dryers and spread around the room.
Writing in the Journal of Hospital Infection, researchers said official Department of Health guidance is that air dryers can be put in toilets in hospitals’ public areas of a hospital but not in clinical areas – but for reasons of noise rather than health risks.
They said official guidance about how to prevent bacterial contamination in hospital buildings needs to be strengthened.
Mark Wilcox, professor of medical microbiology at the University of Leeds, who supervised the international study, said: “The problem starts because some people do not wash their hands properly. When people use a jet air dryer, the microbes get blown off and spread around the toilet room.
“In effect, the dryer creates an aerosol that contaminates the toilet room, including the dryer itself and potentially the sinks, floor and other surfaces, depending on the dryer design and where it is sited.
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“If people touch those surfaces, they risk becoming contaminated by bacteria or viruses.
“Jet air dryers often rely on no-touch technology to initiate hand drying. However, paper towels absorb the water and microbes left on the hands and if they are disposed of properly, there is less potential for cross-contamination.”
The study – the largest of its type to investigate whether the way people dry their hands has an impact on the spread of bacteria – looked at bacterial spread in two toilets in each of three hospitals in the UK, France and Italy.
Each had paper towel dispensers and jet air dryers, but only one of these was in use on any given day.
The levels of bacteria in the toilets were measured each day over 12 weeks, allowing comparisons to be made when either paper towels or jet air dryers were in use.
The target bacteria included Enterobacteria, which cause a range of infections such as gastroenteritis, pneumonia and septicaemia, and Staphylococcus aureus, which is responsible for conditions from minor skin and wound infections to life-threatening septicaemia.
In Leeds and Paris, at least five times more bacteria were recovered from the floors when jet-air dryers were in use, compared with paper towels.