Can I wash this? Biohazard edition
October 18, 2013 6:38 AM   Subscribe

I want to use the washing machine at my office, which happens to be a doctor's office. We occasionally wash towels with blood on them. If I run a load of just hot water and a lot of bleach before washing my clothes, am I sanitizing it enough to not be getting Potentially Infectious Body Fluid Remnants on my stuff? I realize the actual infection risk here is infinitesimal, this is more about assuaging my feelings of ick.
posted by tatiana wishbone to Grab Bag (10 answers total)
The bleachy water will kill bacterial and viral pathogens. There is a reason why a couple of drops of beach in a gallon of nasty water makes it drinkable if allowed to sit for a while. HIV, HepA, HepB and HepC will also definitely not survive the bleachy water treatment.

The only thing I can think of that would survive that treatment would be prions (mad cow disease and its friends)....and quite frankly the random chance that there are prions in that washing machine are pretty low...unless you work in a neurodegeneration treatment center or something.
posted by BearClaw6 at 6:46 AM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Far, far (faaaaaar) worse stuff goes through laundromat machines every day. How often do you see laundromats shut down for biohazard risks?

Running a blank load is way more than enough.

Before you embark on this, I would caution you to make absolutely positively sure you're allowed to use the washing machine. It sounds like this is for your own personal laundry? It seems...odd...that you would do personal laundry at work, to the extent that your employer might take issue with it. Just make sure you're allowed to be using it.
posted by phunniemee at 6:47 AM on October 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You do not even need to run it with hot water, let alone hot water and bleach. If it makes you feel better, do so, but it seems like overkill to me (no pun intended).

I am presuming the bloody towels that are laundered come out clean, or they would not be laundered in that machine. If the towels are coming out clean, that means that the blood was removed, they were disinfected (probably with bleach and hot water, since that's standard protocol for washing bloody towels), and then they were rinsed again with clean water as part of the rinse cycle. Take a tissue or white rag and run it around the inside of the washer and you'll see there's no particulates. Anything smaller (germs, microbes) would not survive the rinse cycle.

Ordinary people get stuff bloody all the time through normal activities (chopping vegetables, getting a period, playing football, being 5). Assuming that this is a normal doctor's office and not an infectious-disease clinic or other scenario where there's a high risk that any blood is contaminated (in which case I imagine the washing machine and entire laundry area would be off-limits to you), and that most of the blood on those towels is coming in from injuries, blood draws, and medical procedures, I think you should be in the clear. (IANAD)
posted by Mchelly at 6:53 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not an epidemiologist, but if the towels that come out of the wash are clean, then there's no need to do anything before putting in your clothes. If they're NOT clean when you take them out of the wash, then your office is really sketchy, and I hope those towels are not used on humans. (On preview, what Mchelly said.)

Notwithstanding that point, as a consumer of medical services, I'd have some "feelings of ick" about you doing your personal laundry in the medical office washer, if that's what you're describing. It's like putting a butt plug through the autoclave. Sure, it should come out sterilized, but as a patient I'd like to know that medical equipment is being used exclusively for medical-office purposes.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 6:57 AM on October 18, 2013 [9 favorites]

This is like peeing in the shower. Assuming you come out of the shower clean, the shower then has to be clean too. By the same token, clean towels can't come out of a dirty or infected washing machine.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 6:59 AM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you don't think it is totally safe, then why would your office be using those same laundered towels for your patients?
At my MD's office, I would really hope that they would give me the same level of concern about germs that they would give themselves.
If it is deemed safe for your patients to actually use the same towels that previously had blood on them and then went through the machine, then it should be safe for anyone to just run clothes through the machine. If the machine isn't sterile enough to do that, then it shouldn't be sterile enough for anyone.
posted by third rail at 7:01 AM on October 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Probably completely safe - but, there could be a difference between what you (and we brilliant people of MeFi) consider safe, and whether there may be some vanishingly small risk that your employer is not willing to have you risk on their site using their equipment.

So I'd second the suggestion to make sure it's okay with your employer. The real risk you're probably taking is some sort of "inappropriate use of company resources" statement in your personnel file.
posted by Stacey at 7:39 AM on October 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

My only concern would be if it's okay for the office to be using equipment for personal needs.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 8:14 AM on October 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm concerned that your office protocol for laundering bloody towels leaves you wondering if doing YOUR laundry there is safe. That said....

My husband is often in hospitals/ORs and while I DO home launder his scrubs, it is not recommended to do so by infectious disease specialists. (I have my own protocol and I'm confident that it's effective.) I know you're not washing scrubs, but washing your personal items in the possibly contaminated washer would cause some of the same issues. Does the office washer have a steam sanitize function? Do you routinely use a hospital grade disinfectant on and in the washer? With the towels? If so then it's probably just fine.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 8:53 AM on October 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

A doctor's office should be handling blood and other waste contaminated towels with care, and they should be washed in very hot water with detergent and bleach. Detergent removes and kills a lot of germs, and bleach does the rest. A spin in a hot dryer makes towels inhospitable to any growth. (Surgical towels are a different story.) If the previous load of nasty towels was washed with hot water, bleach and detergent, the washer is fine.
posted by theora55 at 8:58 AM on October 18, 2013

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