Put Away the Anti-Bacterial Soap

I can still hear it. I am visiting my sister at her house, and she tells me “wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap” after virtually any activity that might have even a slim chance of getting my hands dirty. And I would tell her something like “You are gonna make a superbug!” After some back and forth, I would relent and wash my hands with the magic cleaner. Recently more evidence has come out to prove that I might have been on the right track.

This past March (2005) a study was released by researchers at Columbia University which monitored 120 New York City families who they supplied with anti-bacterials. They found that the control group experienced roughly the same amount of colds, sore throats, and fevers as the general population. A panel of experts meeting with the Federal Drug Administration in October 2005 reported the same result. Of course, most of those ailments are caused by viruses, so an anti-bacterial product would not kill the source. That wasn’t the position taken by my sister, or many others. They had the expectation that it killed anything microscopic. It could be argued to be no big deal, let them use the anti-bacterials if it makes them feel better. The problem is that there are repercussions.

What happens when these products kill is that they don’t kill everything. Many advertise that they kill “99.9%” of germs. It is that other point 01% that presents the problem. Those little suckers live, and they adapt. Then they multiply, and subsequent generations are resistant to the cleaners. So they multiply, and quickly, because their competitors are dead. So you end up with many resistant bacteria in your house that can potentially mutate more and threaten general public health. The same advisory panel voiced these concerns to the FDA. They also pointed out that the cleaners use chemicals that are environmentally harmful. And while they acknowledged that the direct link between anti-bacterials and more resistant bacteria has not been fully established, the circumstantial evidence is more than enough to cause concern. There was a suggestion that the FDA take steps to more closely control and monitor the use of anti-bacterials. One idea put forth was to restrict the use of the cleaners to hospitals and homes with very sick people.

Here is something else to think about. What if they worked completely, and killed every manner of germ? If a person didn’t stay isolated in their own environment all the time, they might be exposed to germs out in the World that their immune systems aren’t prepared to handle. So when it comes to cleaning, what is the best course of action? Clean frequently, and thoroughly, with plain old soap and water. And teach children to wash their hands early, so that it becomes a life-long habit.
If a person travels alot, they will fare much better if they have an immune system that is more able to respond to threats that they might encounter. Unless one wants to live in their own anti-bacteria bubble, they have to live with the realization that they will be exposed from time to time to germs. The best thing to do is just practice good general hygiene, exercise, and eat right.

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