We need to change our attitudes about bacteria.
That seems to be the consensus of recent studies that indicate we have been miscalculating the role of bacteria in our lives for a long time. The research brings both good news and bad news.
The good news is that scientists have come to understand that bacteria can play a beneficial, even crucial, role in keeping us healthy. In fact, humans essentially are walking colonies of bacteria, which inhabit us from head to toe and, in effect, help keep us ticking, especially when it comes to eating and digesting food.
Doctors now are advised not to routinely prescribe broad-spectrum antibiotics designed to wipe out not only infectious bacteria but also a host of potentially beneficial bacteria. That approach can cause an imbalance and possibly new health problems.
Nonetheless, the public has remained obsessed to varying degrees with bacteria. While some bacteria can harm us, we assume that keeping the surfaces in our homes and other places we inhabit as free of all bacteria as possible is a good approach.
That has led to a multimillion-dollar business in antibacterial chemicals that go into everyday items such as soap and toothpaste. Why just use plain old soap and water when we can zap bacteria with antimicrobial chemicals?
Antibacterial chemicals also can be found in products such as mouthwash, laundry detergent, fabrics and baby pacifiers. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemicals in the urine of three-quarters of Americans it tested.
But after years of increased suspicions about the safety of those chemicals, the Food and Drug Administration announced this month that it would require soap manufacturers to demonstrate that those chemicals were safe. And if they can’t, the FDA will order manufacturers to remove them from products altogether.
Studies on animals suggest that the the chemicals – including triclosan in liquid soaps and triclocarban in bar soaps – can lead to early onset of puberty and the disruption of metabolism and fertility. In addition to potentially harming humans directly, the antibacterial agents also can promote drug-resistant infections as bacteria adapt to the chemical assault. In other words, overuse of antiseptics has helped produce so-called super-bugs that are harder to eradicate.
Another recent report indicates that harmful bacteria – the kind that cause strep throat, ear aches, and respiratory and skin infections – can linger longer than we thought on inanimate objects even after they have been “disinfected.” Testing in child care centers, researchers found harmful bacteria on surfaces in cribs, toys and books many hours after they had been cleaned.
Doctors previously had thought that cleaning would take care of most bacteria and that children got sick largely from human contact. Now, however, it appears that a favorite teddy bear or toy could be the culprit.
What do we do? On the one hand, we are told that antibacterial chemicals could be dangerous for us and help promote super-bugs. On the other hand, we are told that keeping our homes spic and span merely gives us a sense of false security.
Again, perhaps we must come to a better understanding of our relationship with bacteria. While some of it can make us sick, it’s everywhere around us and even inside us, and we couldn’t survive without it.
Here’s one bit of useful advice from the FDA: There is no evidence that antibacterial substances are any more effective in preventing infection than plain soap and water. If we can’t clean better at least we can clean cheaper.