Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Your Washing Machine Can Be a Home for Bacteria — What You Should Know

Health + Wellness
gerenme / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Christopher Curley

Today's high-efficiency home washing machines might not be eliminating bacteria as thoroughly as their older, less-efficient counterparts.


This finding comes after a multidrug-resistant pathogen was found on the clothing of infants at a neonatal intensive care unit at a German children's hospital — despite all normal precautions being taken to eliminate exposure to such superbugs.

The eventual culprit, investigators found, was in the hospital's laundry room.

There the investigators found consumer-grade washing machines instead of the usual high-temperature industrial washing machines typically used in hospitals, researchers reported in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

Fortunately the infants were only exposed to the drug-resistant Klebsiella oxytoca pathogen but not actually infected, the researchers said.

What's in Your Washer?

But the findings raise the question: If the problem is a consumer-grade washing machine, do consumers need to be concerned about harmful bacteria lingering in their machines at home?

The answer is mixed.

"This was a washer in a hospital so it would be exposed to bacteria — such as this one — that thrive in hospital environments," Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland, told Healthline.

"This bacteria is resistant and can cause severe infections but still requires a susceptible host. Many people can be exposed to drug-resistant bacteria and even colonized with them — like are many healthcare workers — yet have no infections occur," he said.

But in order to save energy, today's high-efficiency machines wash clothes at lower temperatures — less than 140°F.

That means more bacteria survive the washing process, noted Ricarda M. Schmithausen, Ph.D., a lead author of the study and a senior physician at the Institute for Hygiene and Public Health at the WHO Collaboration Center at the University of Bonn, Germany, in an American Society for Microbiology press release.

In particular, the researchers found bacteria growing in the rubber seals of the washer, which then spread during the unheated rinse cycle.

Few Dangers — With Some Exceptions

However, most bacteria are benign or even beneficial.

"For those of us who use cold or warm water wash and efficient short-drying cycles, some hardy germs will be left on our linens and clothes, [but] the possibility of dangerous, resistant bacteria in our washing machines causing disease is very remote," Dr. Bruce Hirsch, attending infectious disease physician at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, New York, told Healthline.

"We're all exposed to bacteria all the time without illness. This story suggests that if a household has a family member with a recent prolonged hospitalization, hot water and prolonged drying should be considered," he said.

Dr. Martin Exner, chairman and director of the Institute for Hygiene and Public Health at the WHO Collaboration Center, University Hospital/University of Bonn, where the research was conducted, concurred in the study's press release.

"This is a growing challenge for hygienists, as the number of people receiving nursing care from family members is constantly increasing," he said.

Keeping Your Washer Clean

If you live with an elderly relative, vulnerable newborn or simply want to go the extra mile, you can take certain measures to keep your clothes and washing machine free of the worst bacterial contamination.

"Bacteria tends to lurk in the detergent drawer, rubber seals and washing drum," Hilary Metcalf, MPH, an infection preventionist at Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, told Healthline.

Consumers should be especially wary of washing machines kept in humid environments such as garages or sheds, since these are the perfect environments for bacteria to thrive.

And germs such as E. coli, salmonella and Klebsiella oxytoca can cause pneumonia, skin infections, abdominal cramps, vomiting and diarrhea, especially in people with compromised immune systems.

Try wiping down seals in your machine with a 10 percent bleach solution, some experts recommend.

You can also try washing your washer.

"It might seem counterintuitive, but washing your washing machine once a month can significantly reduce you and your family's exposure to germs and infections," Metcalf said.

There's no reason to fret over every wash cycle, however. Instead, choose your wash settings on a case-by-case basis depending on how the wash got dirty.

"Normal home laundering will adequately remove normal levels of soil. However, if contaminated with blood or bodily fluids, the laundering process should be enhanced with disinfecting solutions such as hydrogen peroxide, bleach or Borax, and in water that's at least 160°F," Metcalf said.

Many washers have a "sanitize" setting that will bring it up to these higher temperatures outside of its normal wash cycle.

And there's a more effective germ killer people can try to keep pathogens away from their clothes: drying them outside on the line.

"One of the most striking germ killers is the sun," said CJ Xia, vice president of marketing and sales at antibody manufacturing company Boster Biological Technology. "Some scientists say to avoid using the dryer entirely."

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Pie Ranch in San Mateo, California, is a highly diverse farm that has both organic and food justice certification. Katie Greaney

By Elizabeth Henderson

Farmworkers, farmers and their organizations around the country have been singing the same tune for years on the urgent need for immigration reform. That harmony turns to discord as soon as you get down to details on how to get it done, what to include and what compromises you are willing to make. Case in point: the Farm Workforce Modernization Act (H.R. 5038), which passed in the House of Representatives on Dec. 11, 2019, by a vote of 260-165. The Senate received the bill the next day and referred it to the Committee on the Judiciary, where it remains. Two hundred and fifty agriculture and labor groups signed on to the United Farm Workers' (UFW) call for support for H.R. 5038. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez rejoiced:

Read More Show Less
A woman walks to her train in Grand Central Terminal as New York City attempts to slow down the spread of coronavirus through social distancing on March 27. John Lamparski / Getty Images

By Julia Conley

A council representing more than 800,000 doctors across the U.S. signed a letter Friday imploring President Donald Trump to reverse his call for businesses to reopen by April 12, warning that the president's flouting of the guidance of public health experts could jeopardize the health of millions of Americans and throw hospitals into even more chaos as they fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
polaristest / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner

Over six gallons of water are required to produce one gallon of wine. "Irrigation, sprays, and frost protection all [used in winemaking] require a lot of water," explained winemaker and sommelier Keith Wallace, who's also a professor and the founder of the Wine School of Philadelphia, the largest independent wine school in the U.S. And water waste is just the start of the climate-ruining inefficiencies commonplace in the wine industry. Sustainably speaking, climate change could be problematic for your favorite glass of wine.

Read More Show Less
Pixabay

By Rachael Link, MS, RD

Spinach is a true nutritional powerhouse, as it's rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Jeff Turrentine

From day to day, our public health infrastructure — the people and systems we've put in place to keep populations, as opposed to individuals, healthy — largely goes unnoticed. That's because when it's working well, its success takes the form of utter normalcy.

Read More Show Less