What you need to know about antimicrobials

Posted at 9:32 PM, Jun 16, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-16 23:25:06-04

This September, an FDA ban on 19 different antimicrobial chemicals found in hand soaps and body washes will go into effect. Did you know, antimicrobial chemicals are still in many consumer and household products?

Veronica Hewgley is picky about the gadgets and utensils she uses. She likes plastic cutting boards because she can throw them in the dishwasher to sanitize them. She was surprised that at least one of her cutting boards has antimicrobial protection.

Do a simple search online. Antimicrobials are in everything from some socks to staplers, cutting boards to counter tops.

Leading antimicrobial producer Microban said the chemicals “create an inhospitable environment for bacteria, mold, and mildew that keeps products cleaner between cleanings.”

Erica Hartmann, Ph.D. studies antimicrobials. She says there is a disconnect in marketing, that people believe the antimicrobials are meant to protect people, not the products.

“When we label something as antimicrobial, I think the public perception is really that this product will keep you healthy, and we really have no evidence to support that,” she said.

“For a product to contain an antimicrobial, I would think it’s to keep me healthier, to keep the bacteria off of me," Hewgley said.

Antimicrobials in plastics and other consumer products are regulated by the EPA as pesticides. The agency doesn’t require that a product register if the pesticide “is intended to protect only the treated article or substance itself.”

In those cases, it’s up to a company whether to tell you antimicrobials are in a product.

Dr. Hartmann’s research looks at the concentrations of antimicrobial chemicals in indoor dust. She says the chemicals are showing up in large quantities. Her biggest concern is with the chemical Triclosan.

She says, “Where we find more Triclosan we find more genes coding for resistance to antibiotic drugs that we use quite frequently.”

There’s a growing body of evidence that antimicrobials, especially Triclosan, contribute to antibiotic resistance, which may pose a public health risk.

“If we continue to use these chemicals in such high volumes for an extended period of time, we could get to the point where I would say, actually, we do need to really be concerned about this,” Dr. Hartmann said.

Microban tells us it does not use Triclosan, and their antimicrobial solutions are “integrated into products during the manufacturing process” and “will not …leach out uncontrollably.’

Dr. Hartmann says more research needs to be done.

“In the same way that the FDA regulates ingredients lists for personal care products, I'd also like to see the government regulating ingredients lists and making sure manufacturers provide that information to concerned consumers," she said.

Right now, Dr. Hartmann says if you want to know if a specific chemical is in a product, you can try to call a manufacturer to see if they will tell you.

Products that make specific germ-fighting claims are required to register with the EPA.