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Antibacterial Soap: Do You Need It to Keep Your Home Clean?

Antibacterial cleaners don’t work any better than regular ones – and they damage the environment.

Aiding the Rise of Superbugs? continued...

At CDC’s last check in 2004, “about three-quarters of adults and children older than six had detectable levels of triclosan,” according to Antonia Calafat, PhD, lead research chemist with CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health.

People in higher income brackets had the highest levels, Calafat tells WebMD. “Most likely it was related to use of products containing triclosan, although unfortunately we didn’t have that kind of lifestyle information from the participants,” she says. Triclosan can enter the bloodstream through the skin, the mucous membranes in the mouth, or the intestines.

Could a daily dose of triclosan cause health problems? Experimental studies show that triclosan can cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics in test tubes. So far, no one knows whether that leads to the same result in hospitals or homes. Some researchers, though, believe resistant “superbugs” created by widespread antibacterial soap use could be a real possibility.

Aiello’s research “showed a trend toward more resistant bacteria” on peoples’ hands after one year of using antibacterial soap. The finding didn’t reach the threshold for statistical proof, but Aiello says, “that might only be because we didn’t follow people long enough.”

Antibacterials in the Environment

Antibacterial soap’s potential to harm people may be controversial, but its growing environmental impact is widely acknowledged. The ingredients in antibacterial cleansers are building up in the environment at a rate that alarms leading researchers.

According to Rolf Halden, PhD, associate professor at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, several million pounds of triclosan and triclocarban (an antibacterial chemical in bar soap) are produced annually. Much of it is flushed or rinsed down drainpipes. “Water treatment plants don’t process the chemicals well. They end up in surface waters, frequently at concentrations that are toxic to aquatic life,” Halden says.

“Walk up to any two streams in the U.S., and one will contain triclosan and triclocarban,” says Halden. “These are by no means ‘green’ chemicals. They do not degrade readily, and they tend to persist in the environment for long periods of time. There is still triclocarban in Jamaica Bay [New York] from the 1950s.”

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