Perhaps even more surprisingly, only 15 percent of water samples collected from manual faucets contained the same germs.
According to NPR:
"Previous research had suggest[ed] that water pooling inside the mechanisms of the automatic faucets could provide a nice home for nasty bugs. The [researchers] found that was true when they took some apart. The electronic faucets have more parts and places bacteria can grow, even if the faucets are flushed regularly."
Hospitals and other public facilities across the United States have been eagerly replacing manual water faucets with hands-free versions in an effort to cut down on the spread of germs. After all, what could be more sanitary than a hands-free faucet, right?
Well, it turns out that what was assumed to be more sanitary is actually not, at least in regard to Legionella bacteria.
Johns Hopkins Hospital Pulls Hands-Free Faucets
In a new study of more than 100 water samples from hands-free electronic faucets and manual faucets, the hands-free versions were much more likely to harbor Legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaire's disease and is particularly dangerous to people with weakened immune systems.
More than half of the hands-free faucets spewed water contaminated with the bacteria, compared with only 15 percent of the manual faucets. It seems the tendency for water to pool inside the electronic faucets, coupled with their high number of parts, make a perfect breeding ground for bacteria to grow, even if flushed regularly.
The findings were so startling that Johns Hopkins Hospital has removed all electronic faucets from patient-care areas, and even cancelled plans to install 1,000 hands-free faucets in a new hospital being built.
What You Think is Healthiest is Not Always …
This is another example of why you can't always judge a book by its cover when it comes to your health. While hands-free faucets would appear to be the best choice on the surface, when you dig deeper you find that is not always the case.
It's similar to why I recently changed my stance on reverse osmosis (R/O) water filtration systems. I recommended R/O as the water treatment system of choice for some time because I was convinced it was the best solution on the market.
However, most R/O systems have a holding tank that must be cleaned out regularly to prevent the growth of bacteria. Just like with the hands-free faucets, if you leave stagnant water to pool for any length of time, you run the risk of bacterial growth, and that was one of my reasons for changing my opinion about RO.
I am currently evaluating some tankless R/O systems that are countertop units that can direct their output into glass or ceramic containers that you can store in your fridge and easily clean. This really eliminates the major problem with most R/O systems.
So if you are using a tankless R/O unit the water can be terrific if you treat it afterward with minerals that are removed and do some restructuring to the water but one really needs to address the holding tank issue.
Should You Avoid Hands-Free Faucets?
Electronic hands-free faucets are becoming increasingly common in public restrooms; should you forgo washing in light of this new finding?
While it's true that the hands-free faucets did carry more Legionella bacteria, it's not likely to pose an extraordinary risk to you unless you have a weakened immune system. Most people exposed do not become ill, and washing your hands is one of the best routes of protection against the acquisition and spread of infectious disease. So go ahead and wash up without fear.
Besides, one of the strongest arguments to avoid washing up in a public restroom would be their indiscriminate use of antibacterial soaps, which contain harmful chemicals like triclosan and contribute to the creation of hardier, more resistant bacterial strains.
Again, I'm not suggesting you actually forgo washing your hands, it's obviously important to do so after using the toilet, just pointing out once again that what appears healthiest is not always.
In time, perhaps what's old will become new again, and along with replacing antibacterial soap with the "old-fashioned" regular version, manual faucets will once again become the fixture of choice in public restrooms.