Desire for cleanliness raises danger of disease

Antibacterials contribute to drug-resistant germs

December 26, 2003|By NEWHOUSE NEWS SERVICE

Both war and peace had a role in making Americans some of the most clean-conscious people on the face of the planet.

The lethality of germs was brought home during the Civil War, when three times as many soldiers died from infectious diseases as from combat.

After World War II, as women returned from the factories to resume household roles, the demand for more modern home appliances increased, and vacuum cleaners and washing machines made cleanliness an end in itself.

Today antibacterials - germ-fighting compounds - are in products as wide-ranging as sponges, children's toys, mattresses and pantyhose. A third of all soaps sold in the United States include these germ-fighting agents.

In 1992 there were just 36 antibacterial products, according to the Marketing Intelligence Service of Naples, N.Y. Today there are more than 800, for which American consumers pay more than $500 million a year.

The fear is that antibacterials, like antibiotics, will leave the strongest, most resistant, germs to survive.

"Dousing everything with antibacterials will only upset the balance of nature," says Stuart Levy, a molecular biologist and director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University.

One of the newer and most ubiquitous ingredients in antibacterials is triclosan, a broad-spectrum biocide that damages the cell walls of bacteria. It is used in cosmetics, cleansers, high-chair trays, kitchen appliances, lotions, toothpaste - and medical products.

Five years ago, researchers at Tufts discovered that triclosan can act like an antibiotic, targeting a specific cell function and causing possible genetic changes, including resistance.

A new antibacterial surgical suture called VicrylPlus, marketed by Ethicon Products, a division of Johnson & Johnson, highlights the dilemma that drug companies and the medical community face every day: fighting infection, while trying not to contribute to the rise of supergerms.

VicrylPlus was created to help avoid the nearly 700,000 surgical-site infections that occur each year. The problem is, the absorbable suture is coated with triclosan.

"VicrylPlus inhibits colonization of bacteria on suture lines," says Amy Firsching, spokeswoman for Ethicon.

"We chose tricolosan because of its safety record, based on all the other antibacterial products it is used in."

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