June 15, 2000 -- It's a comforting thought: obliterate disease-causing germs on your hands, sink, and countertop with just a dollop of an antibacterial detergent. But some researchers worry that the germ-killing cleaners may actually be helping bacteria become more resistant to the weapons designed to kill them.
On Wednesday, as part of its annual meeting, the American Medical Association (AMA) urged the federal government to do more to regulate antibacterial soaps, lotions, and other household products.
The organization didn't go so far as to tell people not to use the products. That recommendation was amended when the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA) expressed concern about causing public alarm.
The CTFA accused the AMA of refocusing concerns on their products and away from proven causes of antibiotic resistance.
There is a growing fear that exposing germs to antibiotics makes them more difficult to kill. The worry usually focuses on how doctors use antibiotic medicines. A new drug may be able to kill just about all of the bacteria infecting patients right now. But over time, the medicine kills off the most sensitive germs. Left behind are a few remaining germs that are lucky enough to have some natural bit of resistance. Those few bugs were once held in check by all their relatives sensitive to the drug. With them gone, the remaining few can grow into populations of germs that defy antibiotic treatment.
The AMA meeting comes on the heels of Monday's warning from the World Health Organization (WHO) about the growing threat of drug-resistant infections, or what have been dubbed "superbugs."
When doctors prescribe antibiotics to patients who don't need them, it gives the germs a chance to develop resistance. When patients who need the drugs don't follow instructions on how to take them, their infections can linger and gain resistance.
Today there are populations -- or strains-- of germs that can withstand just about anything doctors have to throw at them. That has groups like the WHO and AMA concerned.
Could this same type of evolution be happening with antibacterial household products?
Consider this, less than a month ago, WebMD reported that microbiologists grew a common strain of bacteria with a common antiseptic called triclosan right in the same container. Triclosan is contained in many different products, including soaps, lotions, and toothpaste.
Not only did the bacteria become resistant to triclosan over time, but also to some common antibiotics as well. In some cases, the germs became up to 500-times less sensitive to drugs. Also, the researchers found that the germs that cause tuberculosis became more drug resistant when they were exposed to triclosan over time.
In its recent meeting, AMA members noted there is no scientific proof that domestic antibacterial products actually stop infection. But in the days after the triclosan report, experts told WebMD that proper hand-washing with regular soap and water has been proven to stem the spread of disease, as have other healthy practices such as cooking and handling meat properly to avoid contamination.