At hospitals, closing the window increases infection risks

Study: The risk of airborne infections can increase fourfold with closed windows

Keeping windows closed may help hospitals bring down heating costs—but a new study in the Building and Environment Journal suggests that it also may increase patients' infection risks.

For the study, University of Leeds researchers used carbon dioxide to trace how airborne infections might spread in a traditional, one-room hospital ward that had two rows of up to 30 beds. The "infection" was released by popping carbon-dioxide filled balloons placed where hospital beds would be in a functioning ward. Researchers also used "smoke sticks" to visually track the wind streams and infection flow, the study says.

When the windows were open, the researchers found that the airborne infection risk was low. However, when the windows were closed, the risk of airborne infection increased fourfold.

Many NHS hospitals in the United Kingdom still use these traditional open wards, "although they have often been subdivided into smaller areas with six to eight beds," according to Cath Noakes, the study's lead author. The facilities show that the Victorian-era designers "knew what they were doing," Noakes says, adding that there is "a danger that we could be adapting our buildings to improve efficiency without thinking how it might affect patients."

  • Thousands of Advisory Board members have downloaded Journey to Zero, our study of the strategies and goals to help you achieve zero hospital-acquired infections.

What can modern hospitals do to decrease airborne infections?

Researchers found that attaching small ventilator fans to windows had the same effect as opening windows in hospitals that are "hermetically" sealed for energy efficiency (Bowdler, BBC News, 4/25; HealthDay/U.S. News & World Report, 4/19).

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