koli-bacteria-123081_640An article on soap in this week’s Time magazine motivated me to work on my vocabulary. It said that anti-bacterial additives, most-commonly a chemical called triclosan, “ . . . MAY do more harm than good.” Time is too cautious by far in using the word “may” in their subtitle – there is no doubt at all that overuse of antibiotics has accelerated the evolution of superbugs and the problem is nearing crisis proportions.

I have noticed for years now that it is difficult, even at Walmart with their broad merchandizing of products, to find bath and hand soap products that are not labeled “anti-bacterial”. This can only be attributed to the public meme that germs are bad and anything that kills them must be good. But, even aside from the superbug issue there is no proof that the chemicals actually reduce the transmission of disease better than plain soap. (Soap is something which I consider one of history’s greatest inventions, inventor unknown. Imagine a world without it!)

Also contributing greatly to the problem is the overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry. A NYT article commenting on a new CDC report notes that “at least two million Americans fall il from antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year and that at least 23,000 die from those infections . . . “ It further states:

One point of contention has been the extent to which industrial-scale animal farming contributes to the problem of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. The government has estimated that more than 70 percent of antibiotics in the United States are given to animals. Companies use them to prevent sickness when animals are packed together in ways that breed infection. They also use them to make animals grow faster, though federal authorities are trying to stop that.

The report said that “much of antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.” It also said that about half of antibiotic use in people is inappropriate.

The 114-page report counts infections from 17 drug-resistant bacteria and one fungus, pathogens that Dr. Solomon said caused an overwhelming majority of drug-resistant bacterial infections in the country. It drew on data from five disease-tracking systems, including a major count of bacterial infections reported in hospitals in 10 different areas across the country. The count of deaths was based on mathematical models — one for each resistant organism.

One particularly lethal type of drug-resistant bacteria, known as CRE, has become resistant to nearly all antibiotics on the market. It is still relatively rare, causing just 600 deaths a year, but researchers have identified it in health care facilities in 44 states.

“We are getting closer and closer to the cliff,” said Dr. Michael Bell, a C.D.C. official who presented the data.

laboratory-219929_640The good news is that the federal government is acting on both the soap and the farm problems. The FDA has announced that it is requiring manufacturers to justify the potential risks by verifying that their products are more effective than ordinary soap and water at lowering the risk of infections like the kind that cause stomach ailments. They are giving companies a year to submit data and provide the proof.

Most people have grown up taking antibiotics for granted. The FDA also announced that the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in American meat farming is to be phased out over three years. These actions, I submit, are a prime example of the need for regulation of industry in the public interest. Let’s just hope they are not too late.  Meanwhile, here’s some new vocabulary we might need soon:

MDR Multidrug resistant pathogens (usu. bacteria), a.k.a. “superbugs”.
MRSA Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus a superbug
VRSA Vancomycin-resistant S. aureus another superbug
CRE A really, really bad superbug with a name too long to mess with.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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10 Responses to Soap

  1. Wow. My mother was smarter than a whole herd of doctors? Is that why doctors PRACTICE medicine? 😉 (Seriously – I was in the hospital for pancreatitis, and one doctor tried to prescribe antibiotics for me. For inflammation of the pancreatic ducts? REALLY?!?)


  2. PiedType says:

    My mom was pretty smart, too. “A little dirt never hurt anybody. A few germs build your resistance.” Etc.
    I find all this particularly worrisome as age weakens my resistances and makes me increasingly susceptible to random infections. Just hope there will be appropriate, effective antibiotics available when I need them.


  3. aFrankAngle says:

    Although I use said soap … and will take to sanitizers from time to time, I’ve long thought about them in light of the lessons learned from bacteria and antibiotics. Meanwhile, should anti-evolutionists sign a ‘believe in evolution’ statement when getting antibiotics? 😉


  4. I was listening to a scientist the other day who also discussed the great potential ecological catastrophe of dumping all of those antibiotics down the drain – they go into the sewer and ultimately end up in the ground water. So it’s not just human beings using it on their bodies, but also dumping it so aggressively into the environment.


  5. Isn’t it just incredible — we’ve been hearing about this for 20 years or more, and sometimes I think the hospitals are the last to know. There is something I don’t understand behind this willful ignorance of the people who should be regulating this.


    • shimoniac says:

      What’s behind the wilful ignorance? Mostly fear. They see disaster coming and they can’t see any way to avoid it, so they pretend that it isn’t going to happen. They pretend that some genius in a lab coat will pull a hat out of a rabbit, (a much more difficult trick than the other way round) and make the problem go away.


      • Jim Wheeler says:

        @ shimoniac,

        What’s behind the wilful ignorance? Mostly fear.

        Maybe. Or maybe it’s just laziness and the human tendency to prefer the short view over the long. It’s the same thing that keeps young people from preparing to be old, as in saving for retirement or buying health insurance or getting vaccinations. Also at issue is the complexity of the problem in identifying whether an infection is bacterial or viral. Antibiotics of course do not kill viruses.

        Thanks to you and to Helenofmarlowe, Jennifer Carey, AFrankAngle, PiedType, and John Erickson for your insights. As for the question of identification, I found this on the WebMD site:

        It can be difficult to determine whether you have a viral or bacterial infection because the symptoms are often similar. A doctor will most likely have to conduct tests. But here are a few hints.

        If you have a cold or cough, it is usually viral. You should suspect a secondary infection caused by bacteria if a fever recurs after the first few days. A persistent earache may mean a bacteria-based ear infection. With a sore throat, it takes a throat culture to determine if it is bacterial. The only common bacterial throat pathogen is streptococcus. The majority of sore throats, especially in adolescents and adults, are viral.


  6. shimoniac says:

    I remember reading in a magazine twenty-five or thirty years ago that a Japanese electronics manufacturer was embedding anti-bacterial chemicals in the silicone rubber keys of its most popular models of calculators. They were doing this not as a stunt to increase market share in Asia, but because their customers, who were overwhelmingly Asian, polled out as concerned with personal hygiene and phobic about germs.
    I noted at the time that given the short life span and propensity of germs to mutate, that it wouldn’t take long for some bacteria or virus to evolve that thought antibiotics were a tasty treat.
    Being right isn’t always a good thing


  7. Sheryl says:

    I generally buy Ivory soap which I think doesn’t contain antibacterials. I guess that I’m making the assumption that it’s still 99 and 44/100% pure–though I don’t think that I’ve heard that advertising campaign in years.


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