Spreading diarrhea and vomit through the washing machine may appear to be a slightly inflammatory heading for a serious medical news article but in this case it is very apt.
This subject was drawn to my attention by an article on 28th December 2012 in the Suddeutesche Zeitung under the heading “Washing machines are washing too cold” (the original article in German ‘Waschmaschinen waschen zu kalt” can be found by following the link here). The Alpine News article refered to the results of a recent series of tests carried out by the German testing organisation ‘Stiftung Warentest’ which were published on 27th December 2012 (the original German Article covering the testing of 52 washing machines can be found by following the link here).
In the latest tests carried out by the German testing organisation 14 washing machines were tested for a number of factors ranging from their energy efficiency to whether they actually washed at the temperatures stated on the dial. According to the article the washing machines achieved very good ratings with regard to their energy efficiency allowing them to achieve an Energy Saving Category rating of A+++. However they did this by not washing at the specified temperature (particularly when programmed to wash at 60C). None of the 14 machines tested washed at 60C, they only reached temperatures of 50C or in some cases even 45C, despite being programmed to wash at 60C.
This reduction in washing temperature can lead to important health implications, especially in households where someone is seriously ill. In particular noroviruses and fungal spores can be very hardy and although they struggle to survive at 60C once the washing machine gets down to the 40’s it almost acts as an incubator. This is made worse because many detergents used today have been designed to be environmentally friendly. What this means in practice is that they break-down very easily: many low temperature detergents, especially the colour friendly ones, actually provide the bugs with nutrients. Their very biodegradability turns them into a tasty little meals for microbes, especially if they are warmed up slightly. There is nothing microbes like more than a nice broth – especially if they can swim in it for a long period of time. Long incubation periods are another characteristic of modern washing machines – they just run and run – in an attempt to drive the dirt from the clothes out of sheer boredom. Microbial heaven!
So in this period of hyperactivity for noroviruses we are potentially increasing their dissemination within our households my using very energy-efficient washing machines which take bits of fecal matter and lumps of vomit from Daddy’s undies or handkerchiefs and plonks them onto Jemima’s pillowcase. And just to avoid the bugs enduring too much stress we are providing them with some nice biodegradable nutrients on the way so that they will be nice and fit to infect their new host with super virulence.
Is it a big surprise that the instance of norovirus infections (Winter Vomiting Sickness) appears to be surging at the moment? For any German visitors to this website there was another interesting article on this subject published in 2009 – the link can be found here. It described an unpublished study in which the ability of wash programmes to spread Staphylococcus Aureus from one piece of washing to another is dramatically increased when washing at 30C rather than 60C. This spreading of microbes is also accelerated by the use of low bleach containing washing powders. Antibiotic resistant Staphylococcus aureus is one of the nasty killers that has been the scourge of many hospitals in recent years – the article goes on to explain that the environmentally friendly washing machine may well be helping to spread such antibiotic resistant strains through modern households.
The battle ground has moved on from the hospital to the domestic kitchen!
Keep a vigilant eye open for those nasty killer bugs. Forewarned is forearmed.
If you are interested in reading my other health focused articles try the following