Dental Errors Can Lead to Infectious Disease (HIV, Hepatitis, etc.)

Infectious disease from improperly cleaned instruments is an all-too-common occurrence in our healthcare system. Every year in the U.S., an estimated 648,000 people develop infections during a hospital stay, and about 75,000 die.[1] Many of these infections are completely preventable through, for example, proper cleaning of medical instruments.

The cleaning process for medical instruments is relatively straightforward process. There are two main steps.[2] The first step is removing contaminating debris and scrubbing the instruments with a disinfectant. The second step involves steam cleaning the instruments with hot, pressurized air. Both steps are vital to ensuring instruments are safe to use on future patients.

Unfortunately, many dentists’ offices fail to properly clean their instruments. Unclean instruments can lead to the spread of potentially deadly infections to patients such as HIV, hepatitis, MRSA, etc. Several studies are highly critical of the sterilization process for dental instruments, particularly the second step of steam cleaning.[3] Recently, a Vermont dental clinic notified over 60 patients they may have been exposed to infectious disease because the dental instruments were not steam cleaned.[4] The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs investigated two incidences where 500 patients tested positive for bloodborne pathogens and 7,000 patients in Oklahoma were at risk for HIV and hepatitis.[5]

We often advise clients to be informed as the best way to ensure better healthcare outcomes. The failure to clean dental instruments is unfortunately something patients have little information about or often no way of knowing. If a dentist’s office informs you that you may have been exposed to infectious disease due to improperly cleaned equipment, we advise contacting our office.


[1] Consumer Reports. How Your Hospital Can Make You Sick. (July 29, 2015) available at https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/health/hospital-acquired-infections/index.htm.

[2] Dental Advisor. What Are Some Common Errors That Can Lead to Sterilization failure? (accessed Apr. 19, 2019) available at https://www.dentaladvisor.com/questions/what-are-some-of-the-common-errors-that-can-lead-to-sterilization-failure/

[3] Smith, A.J., Bagg, J, Hurrell, D., and McHugh, S. Sterilization of Re-Useable Instruments In General Dental Practice. British Dental Journal. (Oct. 27, 2007) available at https://www.nature.com/articles/bdj.2007.912

[4] Thurston, Jack. Dirty Dental Tools Put Dozens at Risk for Disease. New England Cable News. (Dec. 8, 2016) available at https://www.necn.com/news/new-england/Unsterilized-Dental-Equipment-Patients-Testing-Morrisville-Vermont-405451466.html.

[5] Field Hearing on Improving Patient Safety and Quality Care at the Dayton VA Medical Center. United States Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. S. Hrg. 112-23. (Apr. 26, 2011) available at https://www.govinfo.gov/content/pkg/CHRG-112shrg66599/pdf/CHRG-112shrg66599.pdf

Bo Frith