Now a study at five hospitals nationwide finds that three out of 20 endoscopes (pictured at right) that are inserted in the rectum to examine the colon for cancer retained bits of "biological dirt" from past patients, putting people at risk for hepatitis and infection.
"Three out of 20 is an unexpectedly high number of endoscopes failing a cleanliness criterion," Marco Bommarito, an investigator with 3M's infection prevention division, which conducted the study, told the Los Angeles Times. "Clearly, we'd like no endoscopes to fail a cleanliness rating."
The study, presented at the annual conference for the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., found that rates for colon dirt were as high as 30 percent for reusable endoscopes used for upper gastrointestinal exams, the Times reported.
The instruments are supposed to be cleaned with a detergent or enzymatic cleaner and then soaked in a powerful disinfectant, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which issued new sterilization guidelines in 2008.
The issue of improperly sanitized equipment was in the news last month after an Atlanta outpatient surgery center sent letters to 456 clients warning them they may have been exposed to HIV as well as hepatitis B and C. The staff had neglected to do the final disinfectant soaking, center officials told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Another 60 clients were tested last year after undergoing the procedure at a hospital in Alamosa, Colo. In 2010, the Palomar Medical Center in San Diego notified 3,400 patients that they could receive free tests for diseases after having had endoscopies with potentially dirty equipment.
According to the CDC, about 50 million Americans undergo colonoscopies each year to screen for colon cancer. More outbreaks have been linked to contaminated endoscopes than to any other medical device, the CDC reported.
Health officials noted that the likelihood of contracting disease from unclean equipment is extremely small, considering that tens of millions of exams are done each year, but insufficient cleaning of surgical instruments has been an ongoing problem, as NBC News' Today show found last year.
Still, the risk remains low. As Patrick O'Neal, M.D., director of health protection for the Georgia Department of Public Health, told CBS News, "The risk of colon cancer is certainly much greater than the risk of some kind of hospital-acquired infection from this procedure."
Photo: Chassenet Bsip/Age Fotostock
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