Scary antibiotic-resistant bacteria appear to be thriving in hospital plumbing, according to a new report (Weingarten et al, mBio, Feb. 6, 2018). The research was conducted in a hospital run by the National Institutes of Health. Over two years, the scientists took microbial samples of sinks, high-touch surfaces, housekeeping closets, wastewater pipes inside the hospital and manholes exterior to the hospital.

What Scientists Found in the Hospital Plumbing:

The investigators discovered that the places that patients are most likely to touch, such as bedrails and countertops, were not often contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Only 1.7 percent of those samples carried carbapenem-resistant bacteria. However, three percent of the samples from drains had such bacteria that are not vulnerable to last-resort antibiotics.

Samples from pipes beneath the intensive care unit and from manholes outside on the sewers serving the hospital did carry such bacteria. In such an environment, bacteria trade genetic material, so some germs can pick up resistance even though they’ve never been exposed to antibiotics.

The investigators report:

Strikingly, despite a very low prevalence of patient infections with blaKPC-positive organisms, all samples from the intensive care unit pipe wastewater and external manholes contained carbapenemase-producing organisms (CPOs), suggesting a vast, resilient reservoir.”

Why Worry about Bugs in the Plumbing?

The concern is that some bacteria might splash out of drains and cause contamination.  In addition, they hang out in mops and buckets in janitors’ closets. Consequently, even though they pose little risk to healthy people, they could be dangerous for hospitalized patients whose immune systems are weakened. In fact, the ultra-careful surveillance from this study detected one hospital-acquired infection that was traced to buckets and mops. The researchers warn that similar problems are likely in other hospitals that have not conducted such careful studies.

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  1. Lynn


  2. Peter
    Winston Salem

    Dr. Joe:
    Question please: My aunt is in an assisted living facility in Winston. Flu bug is rampant there. What process can be implemented to prevent nurses/care crew staff from spreading the germs? Gloves changed and hands washed of course. But, what about clothing and other exposed areas? UV light maybe?? Thank you.

  3. Mar

    I find this very scary. I believe hospitals should switch to the disposable mops and cleaning agents such as the swifter product. No reason why they can not mop and throw away. Another option is the hot steam cleaning mops, mixed with cleaners. My dad is 90, and if he needs to be hospitalized, I might have a thing or two to say.

  4. Robin

    I’ve been forewarned by many people to always wipe down every surface in a hospital room with a bleach-based solution, such as Chlorox wipes, to make sure you’re safe from infection.

  5. Mary

    I am happy to see that hospitals are restricting child visitors at this time. Too often I have seen people let infants crawl on the floor in hospital waiting rooms (Germ city). These children are being exposed to all kinds of bacteria that are present in hospitals.

  6. Jim P
    Barnum MN

    This is what Plumbers that work in hospitals have know for years, It would be interesting if they ran samples in peoples homes. I bet the results would be very similar.

  7. Sharon

    Decades ago, I was working as an ICU nurse in a busy city hospital (now closed). We used ‘the dirty sink’ to discard the contents of suction containers and contents of patients drainage bags at the end of our shifts. The sink drain was growing Serratia, a type of bacteria that was red in color. Their solution was to install a ‘heat collar’ on the drain and periodically throughout the day the contents of the drain would be heated to the boiling point. I was assured that sterilized the drain. I asked what would happen if one of those bugs became ‘heat resistant’ and was told they’d worry about it ‘if and when that time comes’!

  8. Tbyrd
    Dallas TX

    Wow! That makes me worry about my husband. He works in maintenance at a large hospital. Pipes and drains are a big part of his job.

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