“We’re toast!” writes an immunologist friend who sends along a link to Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. It is an article about antibiotic resistance. But it’s not just another article about the spread of nasty bacteria resistant to multiple antibiotics. She doesn’t bother with those anymore. This time it’s about dust and the antimicrobials that the FDA has finally ruled against. Chemicals that companies like Proctor and Gamble and Johnson and Johnson and others have convinced us make soaps, well, soapier. Better cleaners. Better for us. Better for the world.
You know the stuff, the soft soaps and others promising “now with antimicrobials!” Because we just can’t be clean enough. And so after decades of a more cleaner – more better mentality (which we are only just now realizing is wrong in more ways that one) antimicrobials like triclosan, have been infused not only into our soaps but our mattresses, shopping carts, textiles, toothpaste and anywhere else we might *gasp* encounter germs!
So it is no surprise that the stuff turned up in the dust samples from an athletic facility that had been collected and analyzed by Erica Hartmann’s laboratory (Hartmann was, at the time, a post-doc at the University of Oregon). As my daughter found when she swabbed and grew cultures collected from the weights at her college facility, the environment is rife with microbes (think about that next time you put the weights down and wipe the sweat from your eyes). And it’s also apparently rife with antimicrobials floating about in the dust. What’s more, bacterial antibiotic resistance genes were also wafting around in those dust moats. Whether or not this Whoville milieu of bacteria, antibacterials and bacterial genes adds to the resistance problem isn’t yet known. But it’s enough to make taking a hike in the wide-open air, even if you have to carry a pack for days on end, rehydrate your beef stroganoff in a foil bag, and sleep on a matt with the thickness of a Maxi-pad, seem like a good way to go if you are wanting to burn off a few pounds and build muscle.*
The FDA didn’t rule because they contribute to resistance (which at least some do), but rather because they really don’t seem to make soap any soapier – turns out plain old washing your hands with plain old soap removes plenty of germs. While there may be a place for sanitizers – like hospitals – this issue is kind of a no-brainer. Soap and water works just fine. Even as we are learning that microbes are our friends, plenty are not. Still, there is no place for these chemicals in most of our homes, or schools, or gyms (and for why there is no place for chemicals like triclocarbon – which by the way, looks an awful lot like a chemical cousin of dioxin – in our wastewater, breast milk and elsewhere see here and here.)
*Well there are some microbial caveats to that one too: while hiking in Vermont for nearly two-weeks, the little bottle of hand-sanitizer I carried (which is not covered by FDA’s new ruling,) provided some peace-of-mind when I ventured into a well-used camp-ground privy. Makes the whole trowel, cat-hole thing far more appealing.