Coronavirus: Turn off hand dryers to prevent spread of COVID-19, doctor warns

·3 min read

A senior doctor has written to England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty to raise her "grave concern" that electric hand dryers in toilets could increase the risk of transmission of coronavirus.

Charlotte Fowler, a consultant radiologist, raised the risk of an increased spread if a person had not washed their hands thoroughly.

She called on Professor Whitty to have hand dryers turned off until the issue can be examined.

The senior doctor wrote: "I am writing to you as I have grave concern regarding the potential for COVID-19 transmission following aerosol formation by high energy electric hand dryers in toilets.

"I have been envisaging the scenario of someone who is carrying the virus but who hasn't been 100% successful in their hand washing.

"If they were to use a hand towel they might be lucky and finish the job off. If however instead they use a hand drier to finish, they would be less effective in their own decontamination but worse could create COVID-19 laden aerosols which could float around in the warm air eddies of the facilities being inhaled by anyone coming for the three hours afterwards."

Dr Fowler, who is not an infection control specialist but has worked on reducing cross infection within her field, said the risk of germs being spread during the use of hand dryers is well documented.

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She highlighted that the Department of Health's guidance on hand washing ends with the use of hand towels rather than dryers.

Speaking to Sky News, she added that part of the problem is "these hand dryers are not only not drying our hands very safely, but they are whipping the virus up into the air and creating like a mist or a fog".

Dr Fowler said that this information, combined with recent research suggesting that the virus can survive in aerosols for three hours, is a cause for concern.

As well as writing to Prof Whitty, the consultant radiologist has also started a petition to raise awareness and gather support for her argument.

She cited 2018 research which found jet air hand dryers spread bacteria and viruses around public toilets and should not be used in hospitals.

It found that staphylococcus aureus, which causes a range of conditions including MRSA, was found three times more often on the surfaces of air dryers compared to paper towel dispensers.

The dryer creates an "aerosol that contaminates the toilet room", Mark Wilcox, professor of medical microbiology at the University of Leeds, said at the time.

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, has acknowledged there could be a risk but as long as people wash their hands thoroughly there would be no virus to spread.

He said: “It is a theoretical risk, but nothing is proven.

“If you wash your hands properly there would be no virus left to be aerosolised while using a dryer.”

Sky News has contacted the Department for Health for a response.