Maybe We're Disinfecting Ourselves Too Much ANTIBACTERIAL EVERYTHING
(FORTUNE Magazine) – Microbe-resistant socks? Germ-fighting pizza cutters? Antibacteria mania, like Pokemon, a trend imported from Japan, has seized the U.S., inspiring products unimaginable a few years ago. Antibacterial pillows, dog beds, and cutting boards have all gone to market, and soon we'll have antibacterial shopping carts to put them in. Add in all the household cleaners and body products that now contain antibacterial ingredients, and it seems Americans are striving for a level of cleanliness once reserved for surgical units and Howard Hughes.
Howard might have liked one new product, the Purell instant hand sanitizer, born of this trend. Purell mixes alcohol and moisturizers into a clear lotion that can be used to sanitize the hands without soap or water. GOJO, the company that makes Purell, emphasizes that the product cannot replace regular hand washing, as anyone who dips her mitts into chicken fat and reaches for the bottle can confirm. Similar products made by different companies are also popping up on the shelves of retailers.
In recent years, less familiar antibacterial additives have found their way into all sorts of things. Colgate Palmolive has pumped the antibacterial agent triclosan into many of its products, including Softsoap hand cleanser, Ajax dishwashing liquid, Speed Stick antiperspirants and deodorants, and Colgate Total toothpaste. The personal-hygiene retail chain Bath & Body Works sells nine new products containing triclosan.
Triclosan has been used as a liquid disinfectant in hospitals for 35 years, but it wasn't until the mid-'80s that a company called Microban developed a way to imbed triclosan in plastics. This was the technological milestone that paved the way for the antibacterial shopping carts and cutting boards of today. Microban also produces triclosan-based coatings for fibers, which keep Fruit of the Loom sport socks and Champion shorts smelling sweet.
Contrary to what you might think, most Microban products for the home are intended to control odor and preserve "freshness," not to prevent disease, says company president Glenn Cueman. That's because no one has demonstrated that antibacterial polymers and goos translate into healthier people. Last year Johnson & Johnson was hit with a $100,000 fine from the EPA for implying that the antibacterial Reach toothbrush, made with Microban, could protect the health of the user. In response, Johnson & Johnson reworded the package text to emphasize that triclosan protects only the plastic in the toothbrush handle--not your teeth, friends--from bacteria-induced decay. Hasbro, onetime maker of Microban antibacterial toys, faced similar EPA action and scaled back its product claims before ditching the line, though it still makes antibacterial highchair trays and potty seats. Since few people worry about the health of their plastic, most who buy Microban products must believe they protect the body.
Given media interest in outbreaks caused by E. coli and other harmful bacteria, it is little wonder that consumers are demanding a mighty arsenal of weapons to do battle against bugs. But antibacterial sports socks aren't going to save anyone who comes up against something truly dangerous, like e. coli in uncooked hamburger or tainted water. Indeed, some microbiologists and infectious-disease experts wonder whether waging war against the microbe--which has 3.5 million years of evolution on its side--is a good thing. Flooding the world with antibacterial agents like triclosan might eventually give rise to more resistant strains of bacteria, as has already occurred from the overuse of oral antibiotics. Dr. Stuart Levy, who studies resistant bacteria at Tufts University, has found triclosan-resistant "superbugs" in the laboratory and expects eventually to find them in our kitchens if triclosan usage continues to increase. Microban's Cueman says that won't happen--that triclosan has been used for 35 years without any resistant strains. "We said the same thing about antibiotics," counters Levy, who praises the effects of triclosan in hospitals but is loath to see it applied haphazardly at home.
In fact, most microbiologists stress that it is neither necessary nor possible to rid the home of bacteria. To which most Americans say, "Let's try it anyway!" Are we nuts? Probably. But we're heavily armed, so bacteria had best run and hide.
SUE WILSON is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.