Do contaminated dental unit waterlines pose a risk of infection?

J Dent. 2007 Sep;35(9):712-20. doi: 10.1016/j.jdent.2007.06.002. Epub 2007 Aug 6.


Objectives: To review the evidence that the dental unit waterlines are a source of occupational and healthcare acquired infection in the dental surgery.

Data: Transmission of infection from contaminated dental unit waterlines (DUWL) is by aerosol droplet inhalation or rarely imbibing or wound contamination in susceptible individuals. Most of the organisms isolated from DUWL are of low pathogenicity. However, data from a small number of studies described infection or colonisation in susceptible hosts with Legionella spp., Pseudomonas spp. and environmental mycobacteria isolated from DUWL. The reported prevalence of legionellae in DUWL varies widely from 0 to 68%. The risk from prolonged occupational exposure to legionellae has been evaluated. Earlier studies measuring surrogate evidence of exposure to legionellae in dental personnel found a significant increase in legionella antibody levels but in recent multicentre studies undertaken in primary dental care legionellae were isolated at very low rate and the corresponding serological titres were not above background levels. Whereas, a case of fatal Legionellosis in a dental surgeon concluded that the DUWL was the likely source of the infection. The dominant species isolated from dental unit waterlines (DUWL) are Gram-negative bacteria, which are a potent source of cell wall endotoxin. A consequence of indoor endotoxin exposure is the triggering or exacerbation of asthma. Data from a single large practice-based cross-sectional study reported a temporal association between occupational exposure to contaminated DUWL with aerobic counts of >200cfu/mL at 37 degrees C and development of asthma in the sub-group of dentists in whom asthma arose following the commencement of dental training.

Sources: Medline 1966 to February 2007 was used to identify studies for this paper.

Study selection: Design criteria included randomised control trials, cohort, and observational studies in English.

Conclusions: Although the number of published cases of infection or respiratory symptoms resulting from exposure to water from contaminated DUWL is limited, there is a medico-legal requirement to comply with potable water standards and to conform to public perceptions on water safety.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / classification
  • Biofilms*
  • Colony Count, Microbial
  • Cross Infection / transmission*
  • Dental Equipment / microbiology*
  • Disease Susceptibility
  • Equipment Contamination*
  • Humans
  • Infection Control, Dental
  • Occupational Exposure
  • Risk Factors
  • Water Microbiology*