A recent study from Cardiff University in Wales found that antibacterial wipes–which hospitals routinely use to disinfect surfaces–spread germs rather than eradicate them. The research focused on the effect of three types of wipes on Staphylococcus aureus bacteria (MRSA), the bacteria that cause antibiotic-resistant staph infection. One type of wipe contained antimicrobial agents, another contained disinfectant, and the third had a detergent base. The researchers found that swiping a surface with the wipe killed only some of the bacteria — those on the outermost layer, while the remaining bacteria clung to the wipe, quite alive. And so, the wipe simply spread the bacteria around and deposited bacteria to new locations.
According to microbiologist Gareth Williams, “We found that all three wipes suffered from the same problem, in that they transferred high numbers (of bacteria) and, in fact in most cases, uncountable numbers to consecutive surfaces…..”
Because hospital staff members typically use the wipes to clean one surface after another — for instance, first a patient’s bedrail and then their remote control and then another patient’s night table–MRSA germs have been having a heyday. No wonder 25 percent of invasive MRSA cases originate from within hospitals and 60 percent from common-use facilities — no wonder the incidence rate of MRSA is now one out of every 3000 people.
To contain the spread of disease, according to the researchers, the wipes should be used to clean only one small area of one small surface and then they should be thrown away. For home use, they suggest that regular cleaning products should suffice — in other words, antibacterial products are neither necessary nor particularly recommended. Their conclusions echo recommendations made by the FDA in 2005 regarding a sister product, antibacterial hand-soaps, which typically contain many of the same ingredients as those found in the wipes. That said, let’s migrate our discussion over to the issue of antibacterial soaps and some of the less-than-friendly ingredients they share in common with the wipes.
Existing research shows that antibacterial hand-soaps work no better than regular soap and water in minimizing germs or disease, and that they may, in fact, promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (though this is a hotly debated assertion, with studies supporting both sides of the argument). That said, the FDA formed a panel to review antibacterial products in the fall of 2005, and the panel overwhelmingly concluded that regular soaps were equally as effective as antibacterial soaps in preventing infection.
And yet, the well-publicized news about antibacterial soap hasn’t made a dent in sales of the stuff. And that’s in spite of the fact that in addition to the problems cited above, three studies earlier this spring showed that two chemicals found in 76 percent of antibacterial soaps–triclosan and triclocarban–may contribute to autism, enlarge the prostate, reduce fertility in women and men, bring on early puberty, and increase cancers of the breast, ovaries, and prostate, as well as hinder nervous system function. You’ll find these same problematic ingredients in the majority of antibacterial detergents and wipes, as well as in toothpastes, plastics, cosmetics, deodorants, and lotions.
One of the researchers involved in the triclosan/triclocarbon studies, Dr. Dan Chang, PhD, a professor of environmental engineering at U.C. Davis, says “These compounds should be voluntarily removed by consumer product manufacturers…. [and consumers should] be provided precautionary information regarding their use.”
Even so, customers continue to stock up on antibacterial products, somehow mesmerized into thinking that with the words “antibacterial” appearing on the label, the product surely will keep their families germ-free and healthy. In fact, antibacterial products bring in over a billion dollars in sales annually; new product launches increased by more than 700 percent between 2003 and 2006; and according to market research firm Mintel GNPD, “71 percent of adults who do some or all of the household cleaning prefer [to use] antibacterial and germ-killing cleaning products.” Obviously, manufacturers have a huge stake in keeping alive the delusion that germs can’t survive the swipe or lather of an antibacterial product — and they’re doing a great job of selling the myth to customers by allocating astronomical budgets for advertising antibacterial products in order to ensure continued stratospheric profits.
The bottom line is that brisk sales continue at great cost to consumers — costs that extend far beyond the money spent. The fact that the soaps don’t deliver as promised is one thing. It’s quite another that they may contribute to the rise of deadly staph infection and yet another altogether that they contain toxins that can lead to a host of other diseases. Plus, triclosan and triclocarban have been found in 60 percent of streams and rivers in the US, adding environmental pollution to the list of problems possibly wrought by these antibacterial additives.