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The problem with triclosan

 

The problem with triclosan, an explanation.

After posting an entry about triclosan the other day I have had several requests for more information about them. Most people were completely unaware of the hazard that existed in their own homes. By contrast Nano-Shield creates a physical barrier which is biostatic by nature and will not allow germs to thrive. There is no poison involved in the inhibition of the microbe, thus no lingering threat to humans or the environment.

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of products for household and professional use that are marketed as antibacterial or antimicrobial. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), it was estimated that there were already over 700 such products on the market in 2000 (1). Additionally, the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics (APUA) cites a survey finding 76% of liquid soaps contain triclosan, a common antibacterial (2). Prior to allowing these products into our homes, we need to determine which ones are good and which ones are not by examining what they kill, how long the killing process lasts, and, most importantly, if they are safe.

What does it kill?

First things first, the difference between antibacterial and antimicrobial: a product that is an antibacterial only kills bacteria. It does nothing for viruses, algae, mold, and fungi. An antimicrobial, on the other hand, has the ability to kill or defend against all these organisms. There are also narrow- and broad-spectrum antimicrobials. Usually, the toxicity of the product increases as the spectrum of organisms killed broadens. Penicillin, for example, is considered a narrow-spectrum antibiotic (3). Ultimately, the best antimicrobial agent is going to depend on the task at hand and what present microbes need to be eliminated.

How long does it take?

It would probably be surprising for most people to learn that chlorine bleach requires 30 minutes of contact time to kill bacteria—and that’s direct contact time. This means if the surface is dirty, it must be cleaned prior to using the bleach as a disinfectant (4). That’s a long time for a chemical that can have harsh effects on humans to be sitting around. A disinfectant such as Lysol kills 99.9% of Staphylococcus aureus on hard, non-porous surfaces in 30 seconds, but requires 10 minutes to fully kill the nine viruses and six bacteria and fungi listed on the container. Some antimicrobials only kill 60% of bacteria, even after remaining on the surface for 24 hours. The Washington Toxics Coalition reports that, “all antimicrobials require a certain concentration and contact time to be effective.” Thus, any choice consumers make, short of using no disinfecting products, results in some length of chemical exposure with product sitting around.

How safe is it?

Antimicrobials have not been available on the market for a relatively long period of time, so safety becomes a primary concern. How will humans be affected? The environment? What are the side effects? At the moment, the controversy over whether these products are aiding in the development of superbugs resistant to antibiotics is a hot topic. Antibacterial agents that leave a residue and kill slowly, such as the triclosan so commonly found in hand soaps, are believed to factor into this scary trend. However, products that disinfect with bleach and alcohol (which do not leave a film) are not believed to contribute. Thus, the best product would be one that kills like bleach and alcohol products do: by destroying the cells rather than only killing off weaker bacteria and allowing the strongest bacteria to survive and adapt.

A trip down the cleaning aisle can prove daunting to anyone remotely concerned about his or her health and safety. Any container with the words ‘Caution’ or ‘Warning’ are considered a moderate hazard, whereas the words ‘Danger’ and ‘Poison’ appear on those products posing a significant threat (4). Most common household cleaning products list cautions including irritation of the eyes, skin, and respiratory system, as well as harmful effects if swallowed and the possibility of aggravating certain medical conditions.

Beyond the effect on humans, “the EPA has determined the average household in the USA, using common household products, is the #1 violator of chemical waste per capita” (5). The chemicals used in many disinfectants and antimicrobials on the market today can harm aquatic life and end up entering the food chain. Additionally, antimicrobials do not decipher between good and bad bacteria, so any present bacteria that is beneficial to humans and animals dies along with the bad. Are these risks worth it?

References:

  1. http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol7no3_supp/levy.htm
  2. http://mansfield.osu.edu/~sabedon/biol2085.htm
  3. http://www.watoxics.org/files/antimicrobials.pdf

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