An alarming rise in hospital outbreaks implicating hand-washing sinks has led to widespread acknowledgment that sinks are a major reservoir of antibiotic-resistant pathogens in patient care areas. An earlier study using green fluorescent protein (GFP)-expressing Escherichia coli(GFP-E. coli) as a model organism demonstrated dispersal from drain biofilms in contaminated sinks. The present study further characterizes the dispersal of microorganisms from contaminated sinks. Replicate hand-washing sinks were inoculated with GFP-E. coli, and dispersion was measured using qualitative (settle plates) and quantitative (air sampling) methods. Dispersal caused by faucet water was captured with settle plates and air sampling methods when bacteria were present on the drain. In contrast, no dispersal was captured without or in between faucet events, amending an earlier theory that bacteria aerosolize from the P-trap and disperse. Numbers of dispersed GFP-E. coli cells diminished substantially within 30 minutes after faucet usage, suggesting that the organisms were associated with larger droplet-sized particles that are not suspended in the air for long periods.

Photo courtesy David Snyder, CDC Foundation

IMPORTANCE Among the possible environmental reservoirs in a patient care environment, sink drains are increasingly recognized as a potential reservoir to hospitalized patients of multidrug-resistant health care-associated pathogens. With increasing antimicrobial resistance limiting therapeutic options for patients, a better understanding of how pathogens disseminate from sink drains is urgently needed. Once this knowledge gap has decreased, interventions can be engineered to decrease or eliminate transmission from hospital sink drains to patients. The current study further defines the mechanisms of transmission for bacteria that colonize sink drains.

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