about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

12 Mar 2003

Source: CNN, March 11, 2003

Decontaminating anthrax? Try soap, water

Study: Simple method as good as others at removing spores

(CNN) -- Soap and water can be an effective cleanser to scour possible anthrax spores from hands, researchers said.

A new study found that an old-fashioned hand washing was as good as cleaning with a chlorine-based antiseptic in eliminating bacteria spores similar to anthrax. Researchers also reported that alcohol-based foam cleaners commonly used in hospitals don't get rid of the spores and should not be used if anthrax is suspected.

Dr. David Weber, one of the lead researchers of the study and professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that the study gives health workers guidance on what they can use to decontaminate their and their patients' skin in light of concerns about the use of anthrax as a bioterrorism agent.

"Say, for instance, you're sprayed with anthrax from an aerosol source, or it gets on you from a letter," Weber said. "Our research shows that if the clothes are put in a sealed plastic bag and then your body washed with soap and water, that should eliminate the spores."

In fall 2001, letters contaminated with anthrax had Americans afraid to open their mail. Five people died, and 22 people were infected with the disease, caused by a spore-forming bacterium that produces a potentially fatal toxin. The source of the letters remains a mystery.

"Before the attacks of 2001, almost nobody had studied anthrax for many years," Weber said. "And so there was no real data about hand-hygiene agents' effects on it."

In the study, published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, Weber and a team of University of North Carolina scientists contaminated the hands of 24 volunteers with a harmless cousin to anthrax.

The relation to anthrax used in the study is harder to kill than the infamous bacteria, Weber said. "Previous studies showed if we can kill it, we can kill anthrax," he said.

Researchers then had volunteers wash their hands with a variety of cleaning products, including soap and running water, a chlorine-based antiseptic common in hospitals, a "waterless rub" such as an alcohol-based foam that doctors use to disinfect their hands or a chlorinated towel, which is not yet on the market.

Results showed that the simple soap-and-water routine, as well as the chlorine-based formula, eliminated 99 percent of spores on volunteers' hands with less than one minute of washing. Also effective were the bleach towels, which release chlorine when rubbed on the hands and could be used by medical personnel in emergency situations in which water is unavailable, Weber said.

Alcohol-based foams did not remove the spores, Weber said, and should not be used.

If spores do invade the body and a person becomes infected with anthrax, certain antibiotics can combat the disease if caught early. An anthrax vaccine is available for limited use in the military and for some lab workers, but it requires 18 months to administer all the doses.