Another problem in cleaning products has emerged in the last decade. This is the introduction of grocery shelf products such as liquid hand soap that contain 'antibacterial' agents. These products may not only be a form of cleaning overkill, but their widespread use is making bacteria resistant to them. Like antibiotics, antibacterial agents kill susceptible bacteria while allowing the growth of resistant bacteria that may be present in small numbers at the start. The resistant bacteria can then take over and become dominant in the bug population, a most undesirable situation. Because of this threat, the use of antibiotics and antibacterial agents should be reserved for situations where they are absolutely necessary on a medical basis.
Also, the genes that make bacteria resistant to antibacterial agents are sometimes carried on the same rings of DNA, called plasmids, that carry genes making the bugs resistant to antibiotics like penicillin. By promoting the growth of resistant bacteria that carry these plasmids, antibacterial cleaners may actually foster double resistance to antibacterial agents as well as antibiotics.1 This misguided zealousness to rid bacteria from our lives is resulting in a seemingly endless string of products containing antibacterial agents, including soaps, hand lotions, children's toys and highchairs, cutting boards, and pillow and mattress covers.
The irony in the story of antibacterial agent products is that they are unnecessary under ordinary circumstances. For example, regular soap by itself works against bacteria. It loosens bacteria from surfaces so they can be rinsed away. As reported recently in US News and World Report [U.S. News & World Report, May 10, 1999 v 126 il 8 p60 (1)] the simplest and cheapest way to banish bugs is with at least 15 seconds of thorough hand washing with soap, which usually removes 99 percent of bacteria off the skin. And manufacturers have not produced evidence that healthy individuals who use antibacterial products get sick less often.
1 Recently, researchers from Colorado State University have shown that antibacterials can promote antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in yet another way. They found that bacteria exposed to the antibacterial triclosan have an increased production of efflux pumps. These pumps actively eject antibiotics from a bacterial cell before the antibiotics can kill the cell. This is one of the main mechanisms responsible for antibiotic resistance in bacteria, and thus triclosan may be contributing to this growing problem.
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