Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online
October 2013 Feature 4

Danger In The Soap Dispenser

Bacteria and mold may be lurking where workers and clients least expect it.

October 7, 2013

A growing body of scientific evidence supports the idea that refillable bulk soap dispensers may be working against your efforts to create a clean and healthy building environment.

Science shows that hand hygiene is compromised by the practice of refilling bulk soap dispensers.

Just as facility maintenance managers weathered the transition from bar soap to refillable dispensers years ago, today many are in the process of converting from refillable bulk soap dispensers to sealed dispensing systems.

When this transition is complete, facilities managers will eliminate an unnecessary health risk while experiencing the many benefits that come with sealed dispensing systems.

What Science Reveals

Studies show that hand washers using soap from refillable bulk dispensers cannot be assured of the integrity of the product.

Scientists have learned that refillable bulk soap dispensers can be contaminated easily by disease-causing bacteria. 

The disturbing truth is we cannot ensure handwashers are reducing the amount of germs on their hands if they are using soap from refillable bulk soap dispensers.

In fact, studies show people may leave restrooms with more germs on their hands than before washing.

A recent study done in collaboration with scientist John Yablonski of Bio-Control Consultants, and which has been submitted for publication in a scientific journal, tracked the refillable bulk soap dispensers at a new school in New Jersey.

The study concluded that 100 percent of the newly-installed refillable bulk soap dispensers progressed from clean to grossly contaminated during normal use in a matter of months.

Other studies have shown that in many buildings, the rate of contamination of bulk soap dispensers can be as high as 90 percent.

A study published in the March 2011 Journal of Environmental Health shows one in four refillable bulk soap dispensers are contaminated with unsafe levels of bacteria and also reports zero contamination found in sealed dispensing systems.1

A follow-up study published in the May 2011 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology reports washing with soap from refillable bulk dispensers can leave hands with 25 times more bacteria after washing and can easily spread to other surfaces.2

The most recent study published in the January 2012 issue of Biofouling reveals that, once the dispensers are contaminated, bacterial “biofilm” returns to the inside of them even after rare cleanings.

The Biofouling study concludes that not even bleach is powerful enough to clean the contamination away permanently.3

Growing Awareness

The public is beginning to recognize the risks as news media reports increase on studies, including the bulk soap contamination work by microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona and other academics.

For facility owners and managers, public trust is a major consideration.

A 2011 Harris Interactive survey sponsored by Cintas showed 94 percent of people will avoid a business if they have encountered dirty restrooms.

Bacteria found in contaminated bulk soap dispensers are opportunistic pathogens that are commonly the cause of illnesses such as respiratory, blood and wound infections.

So what can facility maintenance managers do to make their restrooms cleaner and regain public confidence?

Protect the health of handwashers and a building’s clean by using sealed soap dispensing systems.

Once the commitment has been made to use sealed dispensing systems, a wide selection is readily available.

Newer sealed system innovations feature clean and modern-looking designs, and their appearance contributes to effective hand hygiene by creating an image that encourages the public to use them.

Dispensing Advice

Rick Henry, product management director for GOJO dispensing systems, offered a few tips for facilities maintenance and janitorial managers.

“Be proactive and take steps to help encourage people to practice good hand hygiene,” Henry says. “Make soap use appealing and engaging. If a dispenser looks good and is clean, that affects its rate of use.”

“Dispensers really do affect the image of your facility, and there’s no better way to do that than with touch-free technology,” he continues. “It encourages people to use the soap and delivers just the right amount.”

Henry recommends a design that incorporates aesthetics and a sight window that actually shows the product being dispensed; this also helps encourage use.

Some sealed dispensing systems offer touch-free performance and dispense the appropriate amount of product for an effective hand wash while reducing waste.

Further, a dispenser company can even provide a lifetime guarantee and replacement batteries for their dispensers.

“Make certain your dispenser delivers reliable performance and dispenses the right amount,” Henry says. “Fixing broken soap dispensers is the last thing the custodial staff should be doing. Reliability is key.”

Henry explains that dispensers must be easy to maintain and service.

Managers should choose based on the refill system, how often batteries need to be replaced and the ease of cleaning; does it take 30 seconds to service or three minutes?

Camp Pendleton

Henry provides the example of a recent soap dispenser changeover that facilities management company Job Options engineered at U.S. Marine base Camp Pendleton.

Job Options replaced refillable bulk soap dispensers with touch-free systems that use green certified soaps in sealed refills that lock out germs.

Job Options Facilities Division Manager Margaret-Ann Pena says the dispensers, soaps and hand sanitizers were specified in the large-scale conversion at Camp Pendleton to carry out the Executive Order that requires federal agencies to purchase environmentally preferred products and services.

“When do you ever clean a bulk dispenser? Never,” she says. “We just keep pouring new soap in. The perception is, ‘It’s soap. It’s got to be clean.’ But if you look closely, you can sometimes see mold growing in the reservoirs.”

She notes bacteria can get in the older, pour-style bulk soap dispensers.

“It was extremely important that we eliminate this risk, and that’s why we use the sanitary sealed snap-in refill cartridges,” she says.

“We have actually reduced our costs since switching,” Pena says. “The thicker foam soap and touch-free dispensers provide the right amount for effective hand washing. The new system has really simplified our maintenance routine. It’s much easier to manage inventory, and the refills are easier to store, transport and service. The Lifetime Performance Guarantee, which includes replacement batteries, is another cost and convenience advantage.”

Military and civilian personnel have responded very favorably.

“Our customer — Camp Pendleton — is happy that we created a cleaner, healthier atmosphere in the base’s restrooms, and the fact the experience of the user is enhanced is known to increase the likelihood of people washing their hands after visiting the restrooms,” Pena continues.

Sealed dispensing systems provide the solution to reducing contamination risks.

In addition, today’s sealed cartridges are designed for recyclability, delivering a combination of social and environmental sustainability benefits.  

It can make sense on many fronts to transition from refillable to sealed systems, for people, the planet and a facility’s bottom line.

Facilities managers can eliminate the risks associated with contaminated refillable bulk soap dispensers and transition to sealed systems so hand washers can get what they expect: Clean hands.

  1. Chattman M, Maxwell S, Gerba C. 2011. Occurrence of heterotrophic and coliform bacteria in liquid hand soaps from bull refillable dispensers in public facilities. J Environ Health. 73(7): 26-29.
  2. Zapka C, Campbell E., Maxwell S, Gerba C, Dolan M, Arbogast J, Macinga D. 2011. Bacterial hand contamination and transfer after use of contaminated bulk-soap-refillable dispensers. Appl Environ Microbiol. 77(9): 2898-2904.
  3. Lorenz L, Ramsay B, Goeres D, Fields M., Zapka C., Macinga D. 2012. Evaluation and remediation of bulk soap dispensers for biofilm. Biofouling., 28(1): 99-109.

 

Dave Shumaker is a microbiology scientist with GOJO Industries. He is responsible for hand hygiene research, evaluation of novel antimicrobial technologies as well as industrial and cosmetic microbiology. Dave received his Bachelor of Science degree in Microbiology at Ohio University.