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Health and Fitness
Sunday June 15, 2008
• Your Health: Anti-Bacterial Agents Linked to Human and Environmental Health Risks
• Games for Sports Fans
Your Health: Anti-Bacterial Agents Linked to Human and Environmental Health Risks
Rallie McAllister, M.D., M.P.H.
Americans are dead serious about the war on germs. These days, you can find germ-killing chemicals in just about every consumer product imaginable, from toothpaste to children's toys.
We slather antibacterial soaps, lotions and deodorants on our bodies. We spray antibacterial cleansers on our bathroom fixtures and kitchen appliances. We suds our clothes with antibacterial laundry detergents.
It may seem like the responsible thing to do, but the overuse of antibacterial products is proving to be more harmful than helpful. After a thorough investigation, an Food and Drug Administration advisory committee concluded that using antibacterial products doesn't provide any health benefits, nor does it reduce the risk of illness any more than washing up with plain soap and water.
Experts testifying before the FDA committee reported that there is no proven correlation between the use of antiseptic hand washes and a reduction in the occurrence of illnesses in homes, schools or daycare centers. Even worse, widespread use of common antibacterial products is likely to promote the development of drug-resistant bacteria.
The active ingredient in most antibacterial soaps, detergents and cleansers is triclosan, a chemical compound with broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity. Tricolsan inhibits bacterial growth by interfering with specific processes in the life cycle of the bacteria.
While the triclosan found in many consumer products may kill weaker species of bacteria on the spot, the bacteria that aren't immediately destroyed can undergo mutations that allow them to thrive in the presence of antibacterial agents. Continuous use of triclosan-containing products is believed to be a contributing factor in the rise of bacterial "super-bugs" that are resistant to a number of antibiotic drugs.
Antibiotic resistance is only one of many health-related concerns linked to use of triclosan. A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that widespread use of antimicrobial agents may weaken our immune systems.
The development of a healthy immune system depends on our exposure to a wide variety of microbes, especially during childhood. Many experts fear that children raised in super-sterile environments will end up with weak, immature immune systems that leave them susceptible to disease.
Recent research supports this notion: The results of several studies suggest that children living in ultra-clean homes are more likely to develop asthma, allergies and eczema. Kids who grow up on farms have been found to have fewer allergies than those raised in urban and metropolitan areas.
Other triclosan-related health concerns center on the potential toxicity of the chemical itself. Swedish researchers discovered high levels of triclosan in three of five human breast milk samples tested, indicating that the chemical is absorbed into the body and stored in fatty tissues.
Because the chemical structure of triclosan closely resembles human hormones, including estrogen, some experts fear that it may upset the body's delicate hormonal balance. A number of animal studies suggest that triclosan can interfere with thyroid hormone regulation and may also exert a depressant effect on the central nervous system.
While many experts are concerned about the risk of direct exposure to the chemical, others are worried about the impact of triclosan accumulation in the environment. After finding antimicrobial chemicals in surface water samples in Baltimore, researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that these agents may be important contaminants of U.S. water sources.
The presence of triclosan and other antimicrobial agents is believed to contribute to the destruction of fragile aquatic ecosystems. In the presence of ultraviolet light from the sun, triclosan is converted to dioxin, a chemical linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer.
The vast majority of triclosan used in this country is found in consumer products that will ultimately end up in public water supplies. A 2000 survey found that 75 percent of liquid soaps and 30 percent of bar soaps contain some type of antibacterial agent, most commonly triclosan.
When it comes to protecting yourself and your family from disease-causing germs, the use of triclosan-containing products probably isn't necessary. Regular hand-washing is one of the most effective strategies for reducing the risk of infection.
If soap and water aren't immediately available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is an acceptable alternative to hand-washing. While these products effectively kill bacteria, their use has not been associated with the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
In the war on germs, it's tempting to resort to the use of high-tech chemicals, but washing up the old-fashioned way -- with lots of soap and water -- might be best for you, your family and the environment.
Rallie McAllister is a board-certified family physician, speaker and the author of several books, including "Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim." Her website is www.rallieonhealth.com. To find out more about Rallie McAllister, M.D., and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.
Copyright 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.
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