Are you disinfecting your way to bad health?
In 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a report on antimicrobial resistance, that stated, “this serious threat is no longer a prediction for the future, it is happening right now in every region of the world.” As if that weren’t alarming enough, in 2017, the report was followed up with a stringent warning that superbugs and the universe of drug-resistant bacteria/pathogens are presently one of the most biggest threats to human health across the world. On the one hand, drug resistance in bacteria is increasing, while on the other, the speed at which newer antibiotics are being developed and introduced is rapidly slowing down. It is now almost commonplace to hear about the connection between antibiotic-resistance and the rise of the superbug, with the rapidly increasing dependence on biocides.
What is a biocide?
Biocide is a bacteria killing substance and now a generic term for a range of cleaning and disinfecting agents including surface cleaners, antiseptics, preservatives and the like. It is interesting to note, however, that antibiotics are not considered a biocide, despite their serving the exact purpose that biocides do, in the purest sense. Curiously, though antibiotics are slotted entirely separately, as a category unto themselves.
The concern with biocides
One of the most crucial issues that comes up when studying the link between disinfectants and the ride of superbugs, is the speculation that widespread usage of biocides are being responsible for their evolution and propagation.
In recent times there has been a growing trend of biocides being introduced within the home. They come packaged in products that we’re told are good for us, products that will help make our homes cleaner, surfaces around the house and office bacteria-free, our vegetables bug-free and every nook and corner of our living spaces squeaky clean. The inclusion of biocides in everyday items insidiously promotes a culture of hyper-sanitisation that builds on the inaccurate premise that our homes are heavily contaminated and need to be 100% disinfected. Enough research in recent times has shown that it is these very chemical cleaning solutions that are severely destroying not just our health, but also our ecosystems.
It is alarming, and not to mention hugely counterintuitive, to arrive at a potential conclusion that the very products that are promoted as safe and in fact essential for cleanliness and good health, may actually be causing us more harm. But, here we are. All of these developments beg the question of whether we’re all collectively disinfecting our way to bad health.
Today, these biocide-ridden products are present in more places than you might imagine, and in all likelihood have convinced you that they’re good for you. Triclosan, for example, is no longer only limited to being used in surface cleaners. It is incorporated within the surface of chopping boards, knife handles as well as boots for indoor use, under the pretext of cleaning up all microbial contamination even before it enters your home. These chemicals are also often present in other products such as paint, varnish and bathroom fittings such as soap dispensers and toilet seats that come with the proud claim of being microbe-free or disinfected.
The 2017 WHO report on the matter included a first-of-its-kind list of antibiotic-resistant priority pathogens, 12 families of bacteria that are believed to pose the highest threat to human health today.
The rise of the superbug stems from antibiotic resistance, which though mostly naturally-occurring, is also accelerated by the misuse of antibiotics, disinfectants and biocides. Antibiotic resistance threatens not just sanitation and health but is also linked to food security and therefore is a potential global development challenge. Today, a wide range of infections including salmonellosis, pneumonia, gonorrhoea and tuberculosis are becoming more and more resistant to the antibiotics, rendering the antidotes less and less effective over time. For developing nations like ours, rising antibiotic resistance inevitably means longer hospital stays, higher chances of outbreak of epidemics, rising medical costs and a potentially unhealthy mortality rate.
These pathogens, when present in low levels, as they are in home cleaning products as well as household disinfectants, have the highest potential to make some of these bacteria grow in strength and build their resistance to antibiotics. A growing resistance to medication that would otherwise deal with these bacteria, leads to the inevitable creation of superbugs. The fact is, chemical disinfectants, ostensibly meant to help clean up, inadvertently set off the cycle of disruption in the healthy, natural balance of bacteria – some of which are good for you – within your home or office, on your body as well as within your body, creating an environment ripe for bacteria to multiply, flourish and grow from strength to strength.
New research and evidence is increasingly pointing to raising children in homes that have an environment sufficiently peppered with healthy, essential microbes. This will go a long way in ensuring that their bodies are equipped with bacteria that are beneficial to gut health, they can resist allergies and build immunity against superbugs. Essentially, an environment that is too clean may actually prove detrimental to the health of your children and families. A disruption in the natural balance of microbial systems in the gut, as caused by exposure to chemicals in household cleaners has already been linked to childhood obesity. A theory known as the Hygiene Hypothesis lends explanations as to why we have seen such a global spike in never-seen-before allergies and immune-system related disorders. The last few decades have seen these conditions to have doubled, tripled and in some cases quadrupled too. That’s not all, with traces of harsh chemicals like triclosan and triclocarban found in human blood, mucus, and even breast milk, research is continuously proving that hyper-disinfected environments are more harmful to health than likely to promote good health.
There is growing evidence to show this link between antimicrobial resistance and the uninformed use of biocidal chemical cleaners. More and more it seems like the battle against entire strains of growing antibiotic‐resistant bacteria morphing in to superbugs begins with an attempt to safe cleaning done right.