Is our obsession with cleanliness doing more harm than good?
What's in these bottles could soon be changing, depending on pending FDA investigations into antibacterial compounds. (Shutterstock.com / alejandro dans neergaard)
Published Saturday, August 16, 2014 6:59PM EDT
Recent studies indicate that an obsession with cleanliness could be doing more harm than good. Is it time to part with some age-old conventions?
On the docket for this week's 248th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) was research by Arizona State University citing concerns over the prevalence of two antibacterial compounds and the potential hazards they could pose to pregnant women.
Thought to be used in over 2,000 everyday cleaning products including conventional hand washing soap, the two compounds in question, called triclosan (TCS) and triclocarban (TCC), are difficult to avoid.
According to lead author Rolf Halden, PhD., a longtime opponent of the use of TCS and TCC, which were introduced in 1964 and 1957, respectively, the compounds' health threats expand well beyond the health of pregnant women, contributing to the increasing problem of antibacterial resistance.
Thanks in part to Halden's work, the FDA has decided to investigate the compounds, giving soap manufacturers one year to prove their products are safe, or change their ingredients in a potentially time-consuming process due to their abundance on the market.
"If you cut off the source of exposure, eventually triclosan and triclocarban would quickly be diluted out, but the truth is that we have universal use of these chemicals, and therefore also universal exposure," said Halden.
Triclosan, for one, has been used in everything from toys to socks to yoga mats.
As news spreads about the potential health and environmental dangers of TCS and TCC, webpages are popping up highlighting products that are free of at least one of the compounds.
Other websites isolate products containing the compounds, and some even resort to crowd-sourcing to gather their lists due to the abundance of products that contain them. One such resource is found at foodandwaterwatch.org/water/triclosan/what-to-do-about-triclosan.
With or without these additives, other research poses the question as to whether the very ritual of washing could do more harm than good.
U.K. government food watchdog the Food Standards Agency warned that the simple act of washing poultry before cooking it could have the opposite of its intended effect, spreading bacteria that cause food poisoning throughout the kitchen.
To avoid this, they instruct individuals to simply cook the poultry and skip the conventional ritual of washing it.
In another finding that challenges our cleanliness-focused culture, recent research indicates that too much cleanliness can actually be dangerous for babies, traditionally thought to need a quasi-sterile environment.
In June a study from Johns Hopkins University concluded that exposing newborn babies to dirt and animal dander, a repugnant thought to most new parents, is actually good for their developing immune systems.
"Our study shows that the timing of initial exposure may be critical," said study author Robert Wood, M.D., chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center. "What this tells us is that not only are many of our immune responses shaped in the first year of life, but also that certain bacteria and allergens play an important role in stimulating and training the immune system to behave a certain way."