More than a third of medical devices used in open heart surgeries in the United States have been found to be contaminated with deadly bacteria, according to new research that has assessed devices from 23 hospitals in the District of Columbia and in Canada.

The devices called heater-cooler units control the temperature of a patient’s blood and organs during heart bypass surgery. The findings was presented at the 44th annual conference of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology. The study showed that 37% of the 89 heater-cooler units analysed between July 2015 and December 2016 were contaminated with Mycobacterium chimaera.

Mycobacterium chimaera is often found in soil and water but is rarely associated with infections. But, patients who come in contact with the bacteria can develop complications that may take several months to manifest as symptoms. Hence, diagnosing of the infections can often be delayed or even missed making treatment both difficult and challenging.

“The extent of contamination from such a rare organism in multiple units from all over the country was surprising,” John Rihs, vice-president of laboratory services at the Special Pathogens Laboratory said in a statement.

Heater-cooler units have water tanks that provide temperature-controlled water during surgery through closed circuits. The water in the instrument does not come into direct contact with the patient. However, the water can aerosolise, and if contaminated, transmit bacteria through the air into the environment, and to the patient. Rihs and his colleagues tested 653 water samples from 89 units.

The researchers said that the results highlight the importance of monitoring the decontamination and maintenance schedules of heater-coller devices to minimise the risk of harm to patients.