September 14th, 2010

When Hand Washing Is Too Much Like Pill Popping

Antibiotic resistance has become a real challenge for modern medicine. As bacteria grow stronger, there are few options for treating very sick people. Over the past decade, medical professionals have raised awareness about the need to curb the over-prescription of antibiotics. Likewise, tireless activists have fought to decrease the use of antibiotics in industrial agriculture. But dwindling options for medical treatment aren’t the only worry associated with antibiotic resistance. Many things in nature depend on bacterial to grow. Plants need bacteria in soil to grow.

Back in March, ScienceDaily discussed the rise in antibiotic resistance in the environment. Researchers, from Newcastle University in the Netherlands, examined bacteria from soil samples collected between 1940 & 2008. They found that background levels of antibiotic resistant genes had risen since 1940 despite more careful use of antibiotics in medicine and agriculture.

Professor David Graham, who led the research, asked, “with more stringent European regulations and greater emphasis on conservative antibiotic use in agriculture and medicine, why are antibiotic resistant gene levels still rising?” To answer Graham’s question, the reason why soils exhibit rising antibiotic resistance: the use of triclosan and the growing use of nano-silver.

Triclosan is most commonly used in antibacterial hand soaps. This toxic material gets washed down the drain and stays in sewage sludge that gets put on land—sometimes even land used for agriculture. Researchers have linked triclosan to antibiotic resistance in the lab. It’s reasonable to consider that it’s very possible that the remaining triclosan in sludge might also be able to alter bacterial DNA in soil.

Because people are getting wise to the problems associated with triclosan, manufacturers are looking for new antibacterial chemicals to fuel our “germ free” addiction. One chemical that can be used in place of triclosan is nano-silver, which is being used in consumer products like odor-resistant clothing, hand sanitizers, and even bacteria-proof teddy bears.

A new study out of Duke University shows that silver nanoparticles may also harm plant growth. Just like triclosan, nanoparticles enter the environment through sludge applied to land.

While it’s important to restrict the amount of antibiotic we give to both humans and animals, we need to be more knowledgeable about the products we use and how they affect the environment. Manufactures don’t make it easy to encourage change because they push these products through expensive ad campaigns. We need to educate consumers to stop choosing those products. This is one choice that I hope consumers make sooner, and not after it’s too late.

Take action to ban triclosan now.

-Kathy Dolan, Triclosan Campaign Coordinator

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