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What Do You Really Need to Keep Your House Clean and Avoid Disease?

Americans may be destroying beneficial bacteria along with bad in their quest for clean.

Last year, more than 300 new beauty and household-cleaning products—all touting their ability to kill germs—were introduced to U.S. consumers, joining thousands of similar products already on the market. Americans are now spending more than $1 billion annually on this growing arsenal of bacteria fighters, intent upon lathering, scrubbing, wiping, and spraying their way to a healthier environment.

But are they? Or, in their quest to achieve extreme clean, are consumers tinkering with Mother Nature in ways that might be causing more harm than good?

“Hygiene is a good thing,” says Betsy Foxman, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “The issue is, how clean do you have to be, and what do you want to use to clean things with? That’s the two-edged sword.”

New products vs. old standbys

Antibacterial household products are no more effective than soap and water or traditional cleaning agents such as bleach or alcohol in removing germs, according to a number of studies. They also are indiscriminate killers, destroying good bacteria with bad.

But advertising seems to have convinced consumers that the old standby cleaners aren’t powerful enough to keep homes and families safe from germs. “It does play on people’s fears,” says Foxman. “It’s a good marketing tool.”

New products, new risks?

What consumers may not be aware of, however, is what molecular biologist Stuart B. Levy calls “the big P—the potential for risk.”

Bacteria exhibit strong survival tendencies. When attacked, bacteria protect themselves by changing, throwing up defenses against the chemicals that are attacking them. Levy, professor of medicine at Tufts University and president of the Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics, calls the process “one big sink-or-swim training camp,” with the strongest bacteria surviving to live another day because they develop a resistance to the attacker. The bacteria can also pass along that resistance to other bacteria, creating new, resilient strains.

Over the years, improper use of prescription antibiotics may have created dangerous new strains of drug-resistant bacteria, including deadly “superbugs” and certain drug-resistant types of tuberculosis found in hospitals. Although antibacterial consumer products contain extremely low levels of germ-killing chemicals, Levy and others believe that their indiscriminate use could eventually produce the same results in homes. Although evidence of this effect has appeared only in laboratory settings, some experts agree it’s only a matter of time before these products increase the number of drug-resistant bacteria in kitchens and bathrooms.

Limits on antibacterial cleaners

So, if there is no real benefit derived from antibacterial products—and the potential for creating a new strain of drug-resistant bacteria exists—is there any reason to keep using them?

There isn’t, said experts convened by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association. But the FDA has taken no action—even though a 2005 panel concluded the potential for creating drug-resistant bacteria is significant enough that continued widespread use of the products by consumers is not worth the risk. The agency is still reviewing the panel’s 2005 conclusions, an FDA spokeswoman says: “We are working as expeditiously as possible” to come up with a proposed rule. Additional scientific data may be needed before a final rule is issued, she says.

Foxman’s concerns are much broader. She believes that in our haste to kill germs, we are indiscriminately killing off or altering the beneficial “bugs” that keep us disease-free. “There are many good microbes, and we wouldn’t be as healthy without them,” she explains. “They prime our immune systems, create essential vitamins, keep the balance of pH that we like—things that make you feel good.”

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