Dear Vanessa,

Should I avoid all anti-microbial products? (Part II of last week's question, What should I do with my pharmaceuticals?)

— Lewis Perkins

Dear Lewis,

On to your second question! 

Yes.

I personally avoid all commercial antimicrobials like the plague. I do so for my own and my children’s health, and in consideration of everyone else’s health and safety.  That means I buy nothing sold with added “germ-killing” properties.  No antimicrobial-infused cleaners or tissues, mattresses, cutting boards, clothing, toothpaste, or carpet … you get the point.  That’s not always easy — antimicrobial-infused products are spreading like … resistant bacteria.

Philip Dickey of the Washington Toxics Coalition (who seems far more tolerant than me) has written a fact sheet that lays out many of the issues and definitions surrounding antimicrobial products. As he points out, antimicrobial is a general term for products or ingredients that kill or inhibit bacteria, viruses, or molds, thereby it encompasses antibacterials, disinfectants and antiseptics.  

Most products sold as "germ-fighting" are antibacterials; most common household illnesses such as colds and the flu are viral.  In other words, don’t expect your germ-fighting soap to keep you from getting the flu.

Consider, for instance, a carpet that contains antimicrobials to kill mold. Mold only grows in the presence of water. To combat it, you must remove the source of the water, regardless of what antimicrobial chemicals you’ve added to the fabric. Same goes for combating airborne enemies. You can’t disinfect the air with a germ-fighting spray deodorizer, even if it is spring-fresh or just-logged pine scent. If something stinks, clean it up. Treated socks and underwear? Gross. What ever happened to simply washing things?

The last decade has seen the rise of triclosan as the antimicrobial of choice, so let’s use it as an example. Triclosan is now used in most soaps and household products that boast germ-fighting powers — everything from soap to toothpaste.  But plain soap and water are as effective in removing bacteria as triclosan. Triclosan won't keep your family's colds from spreading, as it is an agent that can kill some bacteria but has little or no effect on viruses. Resistance to triclosan has been observed in the laboratory, and its use is thought to cause bacterial resistance similar to a caused by the overuse of antibiotics. In addition, triclosan is structurally similar to the most toxic form of dioxin. Triclosan has also been found in breast milk and aquatic environments, and there’s a possibility that it is an endocrine disruptor.

Where would we be without all those lovely germs? Yes, some lead to nasty diseases, but most keep us alive.  Microbes in soil release nutrients for plants. Bacteria aid in digestion. Without bacteria, we wouldn’t have the vitamin K needed to clot blood. Without bacteria, we wouldn’t have wine, sourdough, yogurt, blue cheese or soy sauce. In fact, studies show an increase in allergies and asthma in people who were raised in an overly sterile environment.  It’s only logical that too much indiscriminate disinfection is harmful. Some exposure to bacteria is beneficial and helps the immune system develop. 

Products containing antimicrobials are almost always more hazardous than their traditional counterparts and tend to be loosely regulated.

Why pay more, expose yourself to hazardous products, and contribute to the creation of treatment-resistant superbugs in the name of products whose efficacy is questionable at best?

But that’s just my take.

Keep it Green (and a little dirty),

Vanessa

See also:

Prevent germ spread