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Antibacterials: More harm than good?

Consumers are hard pressed these days to find hand soap that does not contain antibacterial additives that can actually do more harm than good. More than 700 household products on the market today have antibacterial properties, as compared to only a few dozen in the mid 1990s.
But do we really need them? Not necessarily, according to Elaine L. Larson, PhD, who evaluated antibacterial cleaning and hand washing products in a scientific study. The researchers found, “The tested antibacterial products did not reduce the risk for symptoms of viral infectious diseases in households that included essentially healthy persons.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control cautions against the use of these potent germ-killers in healthy households. Scientists are concerned about encouraging the spread of resistant bacteria—making antibacterials and possibly even antibiotics ineffective. For individuals, the overuse of antibacterials could mean a greater chance of allergies in children due to altered internal microflora that can no longer fully support the immune system.
Triclosan (a widely-used antibacterial additive) in dishwashing soap can react with chlorinated tap water to create chloroform, a reasonably anticipated human carcinogen. Users can be exposed through inhalation and skin absorption. Additionally, several dioxins can be found in varying low level amounts as impurities in triclosan. One dioxin in particular (TCDD) is a known human carcinogen. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has documented other health effects from dioxins in animal studies, including weakened immune systems, reproductive damage, birth defects, decreased fertility and increased miscarriages.
So if not antibacterials, then what? Plain soap, such as an olive oil-based castile soap, works just fine. Which one you use doesn’t matter as much as how you use it. In fact, according to the American Cancer Society, “Rubbing your hands together under running water is the most important part of washing away infectious germs.”
For hand sanitizing on the go, reach for an alcohol-based product. Isopropyl alcohol will work, but it is a petroleum byproduct. For the most natural, opt for products made with fruit- or grain- derived alcohol.
If you decide to dispose of household antibacterial products, do not put them down the drain. Triclosan can degrade when exposed to sunlight in rivers and streams to produce dioxin. In June 2006, Environmental Science & Technology published a study which determined that 75% of triclocarban (another popular antibacterial) washed down the drain persists in the environment even after wastewater treatment. You can take any leftover products to your community’s next household hazardous waste day.
-Melissa Cooper Vachon, LocalMotion
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