Scientists have already warned that the world may soon enter a “post-antibiotic era,” when antibiotics will no longer be an effective treatment for bacterial infections. The number of deaths from antibiotic resistant infections is rising every year, and the numbers are only expected to increase. We’ve taken a closer look at this frightening study.
How did we get here?
A recent study indicates that antimicrobial cleaning products may be part of the problem. Scientists from the University of Birmingham and Norwich Research Park found that when bacteria mutated to become resistant to the antibiotic quinolone, they also became resistant to an antibacterial cleaning agent, triclosan.
One of the authors of the study, Dr. Mark Webber, said their major concern is that “this might happen in reverse and triclosan exposure might encourage growth of antibiotic resistant strains.”
In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned triclosan and 17 other antiseptic chemicals from consumer hand soaps and body washes. The FDA enacted this ban because the companies that manufacture these products could not provide data to support the conclusion that the antibacterial ingredients were safe and effective.
However, triclosan and similar chemicals can still be added to soaps used in hospitals and food service settings. There is also a concern that these chemicals can linger and accumulate in the environment, and even in human tissues. Just because triclosan has been banned from hand soaps, that doesn’t mean it’s gone away.
Now that researchers have confirmed that triclosan resistance might lead to antibiotic resistance, the FDA may have to start treating antiseptic cleaning agents like actual drugs, tightly regulating them so that we limit the amount of bacteria that have the opportunity to develop resistance.
The breeding of antibiotic resistant bacteria is not the only concern surrounding antibacterial soap. There is also research to suggest that humans might actually develop more health problems because we are not exposed to enough bacteria.
A 2010 study found that children were more likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases if they lived in sterile environments. Essentially, the cleaner the home, the more likely the immune system kicks into hyperdrive. This is just one of many studies that supports the so-called “hygiene hypothesis.”
If we are going to avoid the post-antibiotic era, we may need to start recognizing that a few germs are actually good for us. Most species of bacteria don’t do us any harm, and for the ones that could be harmful, plain old soap and water works fine to wash them away.
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