We have a rule in our house: showing up at the table with unwashed hands will set you back a dollar. Now while this infraction is likely not properly indexed to inflation, the penalty acts as a reminder that germs trump the more mindless eagerness to consume whatever calorific delights rest steaming on a plate.
But it appears that there is a higher order. Antimicrobial products may be more detrimental than previously considered.
Researchers at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University are investigating the active ingredients in common antimicrobial products and are coming to some disturbing conclusions.
“Our group has shown that antimicrobial ingredients used half a century ago, by our parents and grandparents, are still present today at parts-per-million concentrations in estuarine sediments underlying the brackish waters into which New York City and Baltimore discharge their treated domestic wastewater,” said Rolf Halden of the Biodesign Institute’s Center for Environmental Biotechnology.
At issue is the longevity of chemicals that have not been broken down or eliminated by wastewater treatment plants or by nature itself. The amplifying effect is demonstrated in shellfish, microorganisms, and other bottom feeders that are charged with cleaning estuarine beds.
“If we continue to use persistent antimicrobial compounds at the current rate, we are outpacing nature’s ability to decompose these problematic compounds,” Halden said.
While the issue is not at all abstract, it is – as all frontline research – largely academic.
How can the average household – that is increasingly familiar with the microbial world and concerned about the migrations of that small and determined microbial world – change its hygienic behaviors?
“The irony is that these compounds have no measurable benefit over the use of regular soap and water for hand washing,” offered Halden. “The contact time is simply too short.”
In 2002, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – and presented at the 40th Annual Meeting of the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) – found that antibacterial soaps are no better at killing germs than regular soap.
The rise of antibacterial products is a reflection of inadequate usage of regular soaps. In studies conducted by the Harvard Health Letter, large numbers of people failed to wash their hands regularly or to dry them properly. These behaviors have yielded the idea that regular soaps do not adequately protect against germs.
While it is certainly understandable to seek protection against unseen microbial threats, it is far more calculating – in a long-term manner – to adjust to those same threats without undermining the estuarine ecology and the intricate food chains that we have yet to fully appreciate or to understand.