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Studies Show Unsuspecting Students and Teachers Could be Putting Their Health at Risk when Using Soap from Open Refillable Soap Dispensers
Every school district prides itself in providing a safe and healthy environment in which students can thrive. But something as ordinary as washing hands with soap from an open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispenser can be putting pupils and staff at risk.
Recent studies conducted by the University of Arizona under the direction of Dr. Charles P. Gerba showed that between 23 to 25% of samples taken from bulk soap dispensers were contaminated with unsafe levels of bacteria. Coliforms, illness causing fecal-based organisms, were found in 16 to 22% of the samples.
The findings from the studies, which were funded in part by GOJO Industries, concluded that open refillable bulk soap systems are a breeding ground for germs that can result in a public health risk. Open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispensers utilize a refillable container from which product is dispensed. It is refilled by pouring soap into the container on an "as needed" basis.
"Every time you use soap from an open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispenser, you could be putting hundreds of millions of fecal bacteria on your hands, which is actually more than is in the toilet after you flush it," said Dr. Gerba.
The findings from these studies were presented at a recent meeting of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) in Toronto, Canada and will be presented in June at the National Environmental Health Association's Annual Conference. The studies, which were funded in part by GOJO Industries of Akron, OH, concluded that the open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispensers are a breeding ground for germs and can result in a public health risk.
"When we first learned about contamination issues regarding open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispensers, we wanted to collect data to determine if it was true," said Joe Kanfer, chairman and chief executive officer of GOJO Industries. "The study by Dr. Gerba confirmed that contamination is present."
According to Dr. Gerba, the bacteria that were found in overwhelming numbers were opportunistic pathogens. Opportunistic pathogens are capable of causing serious infections in young people and people who are immunocompromised. These two identifiers comprise much of the school population in districts across the country.
Dr. Gerba explained that these infections can range from eye, skin or respiratory infections to susceptible individuals.
Although young people and those who are immunocompromised are at greater risk of infection, Dr. Gerba says everyone is susceptible, especially if you have abrasions or open cuts or wounds. He explains that by washing your hands with contaminated soap, there is the potential of spreading the germs when you touch these open areas. The germs can also be spread to other surfaces, including shared items by students.
While opportunistic pathogens predominated, Dr. Gerba said you should not rule out the existence of frank pathogens growing in these open refillable soap dispensers. Frank pathogens are unmistakable viruses, microorganisms or other substances that can cause disease in everyone, including healthy individuals.
Dr. Gerba said the studies focused on the amount of bacteria in these dispensers. He noted that opportunistic pathogens that were predominant included Klebsiella, Enterobacter and Serratia.
"We don't know all the different types of bacteria that can grow in the dispenser," said Dr. Gerba. "There could be frank pathogens that make everybody ill."
Meanwhile, does the type of open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispensers make a difference with regard to contamination? Dr. Gerba said any open refillable dispenser, whether plastic or stainless steel, could be subject to contamination. He cautioned that stainless steel dispensers may lend a false sense of security.
"Stainless steel will not control microbial growth," responded Dr. Gerba. "They are very easy surfaces to clean. But, they won't control microbial growth."
Although manufacturers of these systems offer cleaning instructions and some offer product which claim to clean and sanitize these open systems, Dr. Gerba said he is unaware of any established protocol for cleaning and effective sanitizing of open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispensers.
With regard to cleaning solutions that also claim to sanitize, Dr. Gerba suggested that you should ask to see the data of how well it works and how often you really need to clean the system to maintain it in a sanitary manner.
According to Dr. Gerba, the only safe solution to the risks of using open refillable bulk soap reservoir dispensers is to use sanitary sealed systems. Sanitary sealed systems utilize refill cartridges that are sealed during the manufacturing process. These high-capacity refills are used once and then discarded when empty. The study showed that no pathogens were found in soap collected from sanitary sealed systems.
"I think it's important in schools to use the right type of soap dispensers because kids get a lot of abrasions on their hands, particularly young children," noted Dr. Gerba. "You don't really want to have them rubbing bacteria into their wounds."
After analyzing the data from the study, Dr. Gerba concluded, "I think the industry that supplies bulk soap should promote the use of sealed systems and not reusable refillable containers."
Dr. Gerba is a professor environmental microbiology in the departments of Microbiology and Immunology and Soil, Water, and Environmental Science at the University of Arizona in Tucson.
GOJO Industries, inventors of PURELL® Instant Hand Sanitizer, distributes it in away-from-home markets throughout the world. In addition, GOJO manufactures and distributes a full line of products under the GOJO and PROVON brand names. GOJO has a 61 year history of leadership in improving well-being through hand hygiene and healthy skin. GOJO has products and programs to kill germs on hands and solve skin care-related problems in a variety of markets, including healthcare, foodservice, manufacturing, automotive, education, government and military. GOJO is a privately held corporation headquartered in Akron, Ohio, with offices in the United Kingdom, Japan and Brazil.