Q. Can you get lice or bed bugs by sharing a laundry room (washers, dryers, folding table) with someone who has them? If so, is there anything that can be done to prevent it?
A. Let’s tackle the issue on everyone’s minds first: Bed bugs.
If you wash or dry your clothes at the hottest temperature, your risk of catching bed bugs through shared machines is minimal.
“Basically what goes into the dryer at high heat for half an hour comes out safe as long as it is not overloaded. Washers on high heat are probably safe as well,” says our pest control guru Gil Bloom, president of Standard Pest Management.
Note that some bugs or eggs could survive a cold water wash. So you could pick up someone else’s problem if you then air-dry some of your clothes rather than toasting them on high in the dryer.
However, says Bloom, “The bigger danger has to do with carts and tables where laundry may be placed or stored. Some carts are canvas or cloth and they can be even more problematic."
If you are particularly concerned, says Bloom, "take your laundry down in a bag that will be dried and placed clothes directly inside the washer, folding them when you get home on a white sheet, towel or cloth which will enable you to inspect for bed bugs. You could also do this on a sheet or plastic sheet in the laundry room."
(Just be sure to get back down to the laundry room early before someone removes your clothes for you and puts them on the folding table.)
Rest assured on one point: The chances are slim that your whole laundry room is infested.
“They’re well lit while in use, do not have a lot of clutter, the act of laundering clothes is hazardous to bed bugs, and there is no steady food source at usual feeding times,” says Bloom.
“To date, the majority of laundry room surveillance—which consists of monitors and inspections—has not yielded significant bed bug activity," he explains, noting that out of 15 recent laundry rooms inspected and monitored by his company, only one came up positive. "It had four bed bugs and some shed exoskeletons in a lint filter. A tenant with bed bugs was continually leaving bags overnight."
(Note to current bed bug victims: Protect your neighbors--and yourself from future reinfestation--by bagging dirty clothes in sealed plastic and opening the bags directly into the machine.)
We asked Bedbugger.com to weigh in on the communal laundry room contagion possibility and received similar advice, with this caveat:
“I am even MORE concerned about people spreading bed bugs through wash and fold or dry cleaning services, where bags of unwashed belongings may sit around for awhile, sometimes in close proximity to already-laundered or dry-cleaned items,” he/she emailed us.
Now onto lice: Laundry rooms aren’t particularly hospitable to them either.
In addition, says Bloom, lice don't "jump, fly, hop or really for that matter move around that much. They are basically transmitted by direct contact and cannot survive much more than 24 hours off of the host.”
(Bed bugs, in contrast, can survive several months, says Bloom, with newer research rounding down the "over a year" statistic to 8 or 9 months, though no definitive scientific study is available.)
Both lice and their eggs (nits) are killed by exposure to water at 125° in ten minutes, so they would most probably not survive a hot water wash, says Bloom, “and certainly not the dryer.”
Bottom line: Unless severely lice-infested clothes pass through the washer within the last 24 hours AND you let your clothes dry naturally after washing them on cold, AND you promptly wear those clothes, it’s basically impossible to catch lice through communal laundry equipment.
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