January 2012
Over The Wire Tissue Edition
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Study Finds Bacteria in Some Unused Paper Towels, Especially Those Made with Recycled Fiber

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Grabbing a paper towel in a public restroom may leave more on your hands than you bargained for, according to an article in WebMD Health News by Brenda Goodman, MA. In the article, Goodman reports that researchers at Laval University in Canada say they’ve found bacteria, including some that are known to make people sick, in unused paper towels. They also found that those bacteria could be transferred to hands after washing.

The study, published in the American Journal of Infection Control, did not find any illnesses connected to paper towel use. Experts say the findings are probably most important for people in hospital isolation units and those with weakened immune function who need to be extra cautious about contact with germs.

Laval University researchers tested six brands of commercial paper towels - the kind doled out in many public bathrooms. They found bacteria in all of them, but the towels made from recycled fibers were the most heavily contaminated. "In our study, the concentration of bacteria in the recycled paper was between 100- and 1,000-fold higher than the virgin wood pulp brand," the researchers wrote.

Bacterial slime is known to be a problem at recycled paper mills, where it corrodes machines and may damage finished paper sheets, Goodman points out in her article. Researchers, she continues, say the new paper towel finding fits with other studies that have noted high bacterial counts in other kinds of recycled paper products. Bacteria may thrive in recycled paper because it contains binding ingredients such as starches and fillers that serve as food.

Most of the bacteria found in paper towels were Bacillus bacteria. Many Bacillus strains can produce toxins that cause food poisoning. One brand of paper towel contained Bacillus cereus bacteria, which, in addition to food poisoning, has been associated with infections of the eyes, lungs, blood, and central nervous system. Although the found amounts of B. cereus probably wouldn’t harm healthy people, researchers note it may be more dangerous for people who have weakened immune systems, such as babies and the elderly, and for people who take medications that suppress their immune function. Germ experts said the study was an eye-opener, Goodman emphasizes.

"These findings are interesting in that we do not think of paper towels as being contaminated," Elizabeth Scott, PhD, who is co-director of the Center for Hygiene and Health in Home and Community at Simmons College in Boston, said in the American Journal of Infection Control article. Scott says the study also made her curious about bacteria in other kinds of paper products. "It makes me wonder about kitchen towels. These are put to all kinds of uses in direct contact with food, for example, covering and wrapping food," she says. "And what about facial tissues, which come into close contact with our eyes and noses?"

Scott and other experts, however, note that the study did not find paper towels caused anyone to get sick. Until more is known, experts agree that this one study shouldn’t be a reason for healthy people to avoid paper towels, according to Goodman. "People shouldn’t think that it’s better not to wash their hands if they only have paper towels available to dry them," Angela Golden, DNP, who is president-elect of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners, said in the Journal article. She adds that 20 seconds with soap and water is still the rule, especially after activities that dramatically increase exposure to germs, such as handing raw meat.



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