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The Oversanitization of America: Are Antibacterial Products Helping Or Hurting?

Written by Rebecca Ephraim, RD, CCN   
Thursday, 01 December 2005 00:00
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“Kill those bugs!” appears to be a slogan that germ-phobic Americans have fanatically adopted. And merchants have responded with zeal.

If you visit the soap, detergent, or health and skin-care aisle of any store, you’d swear that malicious monster bacteria are on the loose and they are on the hunt for your family members. Product labels touting extra-strength bacterial fighting agents conjure up images of filthy disease-breeding germs that have to be stopped! Of course, the makers of these products are simply meeting the feeding frenzy of misguided consumers who are intent on spraying, squirting, and smearing all forms of antibacterial agents in and around their homes as well as on themselves and their kids.

The OversanitizationAntibacterial products are designed to remove diseasecausing organisms from external surfaces before they can enter the body. But we’re learning that, in the case of a large group of these products, this is not a healthy approach to keeping disease at bay for a number of reasons. Most important, there’s growing evidence that certain antibacterial products may well be contributing to the alarming problem of bacterial resistance that was initially linked to our indiscriminate and improper use of antibiotics.

Antibacterials are in a separate category from antibiotics,but both are lumped under the umbrella term of antimicrobials. It’s been a well-known fact for years that this country’s wayward use of antibiotics has created mutant strains of bacteria—including those that cause meningitis, pneumonia, children’s middle-ear infections, and blood infections—that are now resistant to at least one antibiotic. In fact, tuberculosis has been shown to be resistant to many antibiotics and frequently does not respond to treatment.

Quite logically, consumers’ fear of this situation and the urge for “protection” has resulted in the persistent and arbitrary use of antibacterial products. But, ironically, in our unwitting need to build germ barriers by applying antibacterials— and buying items impregnated with them (such as cutting boards, high chairs, toys, and mattress pads)—we are contributing to the problem on several levels according to emerging new research.

Stuart Levy, M.D., could be considered America’s resident expert on the entire sweeping subject of antibiotics and antibacterial agents. As director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University Medical School, Dr. Levy is a scientist on a campaign to reduce the indiscriminate use of them. But the issue of antibacterials is one that is fairly new on the scene. For instance, in 1992, he released The Antibiotic Paradox, a book detailing antibiotic misuse. He didn’t address antibacterial agents at the time, as they hadn’t emerged on the consumer scene. In the ten years since, antibacterials have become a ubiquitous presence in most American homes. This time, Dr. Levy dedicates an entire chapter to the subject in his newly released and updated second edition.

The OversanitizationHe emphasizes that antibacterial products can be divided into two groups: one includes a group that’s considered safe to use. And the other is the cause for alarm. The safe group is referred to as non-residue-producing antibacterial agents and includes the sorts of products that many of us carry around in our cars or purses to clean our hands when soap and water are not available. They are products with ingredients that immediately kill bacteria and then quickly evaporate. These include antibacterials made from alcohols, ammonia, hydrogen peroxide, and chlorine bleach.

The real culprits are in the second group, termed residueproducing agents which are chemicals that linger on surfaces or products impregnated with them. These long-lasting residues will continue to kill benign bacteria and increase the growth of resistant strains long after target bacteria have been removed.

The most widely used among these are triclosan, triclocarbon, and benzalkonium chloride. (A full list can be accessed at the Web site “Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics” at www.apua.org). These are the residue-producing chemicals that are used not only in toiletries and detergents, but also incorporated into toothbrushes, pens, and children’s products.