Flu season is upon us and the marketers are ready. Google "swine flu prevention" and you will see an incredible number of "public service announcements" promising ways to prevent swine flu. These commercials dressed up as informational articles are sponsored by companies like Dial Soap, Lysol, and Purell.
Is there a dark-side to this proffering of product? Even if these "preventative measures" are not helpful, are they actually harmful? Maybe.
First of all it is important to understand the differences between disinfectants, antibacterial products, antiseptics, and antibiotics. Antibiotics and antiseptics have distinct medical purposes. Antibiotics destroy microorganisms within the body and antiseptics destroy microorganisms on living tissue.
Household antibacterial soaps and wipes on the other hand use a small amount of an antibacterial agent called triclosan. Because triclosan is a potentially harmful substance, it's concentration in household products is restricted to the point that these products do not contain enough antibacterial agent to be effective. Study after study shows that washing with regular soap and water is just as effective as washing with antibacterial soap. So what is the harm in being a little overly cautious? Studies have linked triclosan to a range of health and environmental effects, from skin irritation, allergy susceptibility, bacterial and compounded antibiotic resistant, and dioxin contamination to destruction of fragile aquatic ecosystems. So whatever you do, leave the antibacterial soaps alone.
What about disinfectants? First of all, I have never seen a study which showed that the use of household disinfectants actually reduces the incident of the common cold or flu. (And believe me, I have looked.) What about their germ fighting claims? Well to be classified as a disinfectant a product must kill 99.9% of a specific bacterial test population. Household disinfectants do kill germs...but only on contact. They might be useful on cutting boards and knives when preparing raw meats or eggs or around the toilet if your house is hit with an intestinal flu. But air borne viruses are quite another thing.
Household disinfects dissipate quickly. They don't linger in the air and remove germs other than where they are wiped or sprayed and only upon immediate contact. Are you really going to wipe every door knob you touch? If you do, you could be doing a lot more harm than good. Most disinfectants are, by their very nature, potentially harmful (even toxic) to humans or animals. Household disinfectant sprays can aggregate asthma and other respiratory conditions. Disinfectant sprays and wipes can be corrosive to the skin, nasal passages and throat. There is evidence that the overuse of these substances may be leading to the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains.
Before you are tempted to reach for those antibacterial or disinfectant products ask yourself, is my family going to be at greater risk from some unknown germ or from a chemical known to harm people? And remember, the US Center for Disease control does not recommend these products. Instead it recommends washing hands with soap and water and using a hand sanitizer only when soap and water are not available.
Age-old common sense measures work too. Bacteria prefer damp-dark areas. Keep fresh air circulating in your home. Keep surfaces clean and dry. Let in as much sunlight as possible. Ultra-violet rays kill germs naturally.