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Chemical Weapons Come Home 

The “vomiting virus” now sweeping across Britain may be spreading. At the same time, San Francisco is being hit with a new strain of the nasty bacterium known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus)—this one responsible for “flesh-eating pneumonia.”

Meanwhile, four patients were recently isolated in the University of Maryland Medical Center, infected with a multidrug-resistant bacterium called Acinetobacter baumannii, which has attacked a number of Afghanistan war veterans. As one doctor said of that bug, “When these people get infected, you sort of say this is the last straw.”

Those new menaces, and more, are joining the usual biological villains. More than ever, we’re turning to the chemical industry for help in fortifying the home against microbial invasion. Few go as far as Jacques Niemand, a reclusive Briton who was killed last May by fumes rising from vast quantities of disinfectant that he kept in open buckets around his house to ward off infection. But lower-intensity chemical warfare on our invisible housemates is in full swing.

Many hospital patients and people with compromised immune systems depend for their very survival on large quantities of not-entirely-benign antimicrobial products. However, there appears to be widespread scientific consensus that for most routine home uses, thorough washing with soap provides sufficient protection.

In domestic use, there’s the possibility that some antimicrobial products could induce disease-causing bacteria to evolve antibiotic resistance. Then, as they flow down the drain into sewers and beyond, significant tonnages can accumulate in the tissues of wildlife and people, with potentially toxic consequences. And it could be that dramatic increases in asthma and allergy rates are related to immune-system distortion that comes from living in microbe-poor bubbles.

Homeland sterility enforcement
Brian Sansoni, vice president for communication and membership with the Soap and Detergent Association, cites a body of research showing that antibacterial soaps reduce the numbers of harmful bacteria on the skin and other surfaces and are especially useful when you’re caring for elderly or immunosuppressed people, dealing with an infectious illness in the house, or preparing food.

“The bottom line,” says Sansoni, “is that consumers can continue to safely use antibacterial soaps and hygiene products with confidence—as they already do in homes, schools, offices, hospitals and health care centers, day care centers, and nursing homes—every single day.”

Among family members who do most of the housecleaning, 71 percent say they prefer to use antibacterial products when available. And germ-killing products are more widely available than ever. As of 2001, 76 percent of liquid hand soaps and 29 percent of bar soaps contain antibacterial chemicals. Mintel’s Global New Products Database has seen introductions of new antimicrobial products grow from fewer than 200 in 2003 to more than 1,600 last year.

Once you’ve strategically placed chemical hand cleaners in the kitchen, bedroom, car, and office, you can stock up on antimicrobial toothpaste, cosmetics, kitchen counter wipes, cutting boards, knives, chopsticks, dishrags, gloves, underwear, bath towels, computer keyboards, toys, dog ear wipes, laundry detergent, and paint. The Amana Corporation is promoting a washing machine whose drum is impregnated with an antimicrobial chemical, and several manufacturers offer vacuum cleaners that are chemically resistant to bacteria or bathe your carpet in germ-killing ultraviolet light. And, if you’re intent on leaving no bug unturned, you can subscribe to an antibacterial garbage can cleaning service.

The Environmental Protection Agency has registered 8,000 disinfectant products to date. That’s required, because the law says they’re pesticides. Whether it’s referred to as “disinfectant” or “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” or even the somewhat disturbing term “biocidal,” each compound kills a range or organisms—bacteria, fungi, yeast, or even the viruses that cause colds and flu—but none fully eradicates them.
The most popular of these weapons are still products of pre-1970 “better living through chemistry.” There are standbys like ammonia, pine oil, and chlorine bleach, as well as types of germ-killing super detergents called quaternary ammonium compounds; most prominent in that latter class is benzalkonium chloride, the active ingredient in many disinfectant wipes and sprays.

The compound drawing the most recent attention has been triclosan, along with its cousin triclocarban. Those chemicals, 1960s-era spinoffs from weed-killer research, are considered safe enough to come into very close contact with the human body: in food preparation, bathing, and even for cleaning sex toys.

Chemical weapons can backfire

A 2003 study funded by the Proctor & Gamble Company allayed concerns about washing dishes with antibacterial detergent, finding that genetic resistance did not increase in bacterial cultures exposed to triclosan for several months. At the time the paper was published, one of its authors, a scientist at a British university, told the press that Proctor & Gamble “does not produce a liquid dishwashing detergent that contains triclosan”—implying that the company therefore had no conflict of interest. P&G did, however, make a range of other products containing the chemical, and soon after, began marketing triclosan-fortified dishwashing liquids as well.

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