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Over-Sanitization and Its Impact on Health & the Environment

When the H1N1 pandemic struck, health authorities encouraged the use of hand sanitizers and disinfectant spray in an attempt to stem the outbreak. But while there is nothing wrong with the use of sanitizing products per se, too many people might have taken the way advice too far.


Prevalence of Triclosan and Triclocarban in the Environment

Triclosan and triclocarban are two chemicals commonly used in many household cleaning products and in disinfectants – otherwise known as antimicrobials. In sufficient amounts, these two chemicals are known to cause among other things skin irritation, allergy susceptibility, bacterial and endocrine disruption.

These chemicals do not break down easily once it is washed down the drain. Traces of triclosan have been found in many of the waterways in the United States and even downstream from water treatment plants. This resilience to treatment is cause for great concern because once exposed to sunlight and water, triclosan could change into a toxin called dioxin.

High concentrations of dioxin can cause skin lesions and even alter liver functions. Long term effects of dioxin exposure could cause problems with the immune, nervous, endocrine and reproductive systems in the body. It is no accident that the majority of disinfectants have a warning label disclaiming the toxicity not mentioned in the commercials.

Don't Overuse Hand Sterilizers

Hand sanitizers that use an ethanol or alcohol base, are an effective means of reducing bacteria count on hands. However, only those with ethanol or alcohol concentrations of at least 62% are of any significant use. The effectiveness of sanitizers with anything less are comparable to washing with just plain water.

Alcohol and ethanol chemically denature proteins. Denaturing occurs when a protein is subject to outside chemical or temperature stresses. Frying an egg on a pan is an example of heat-based denaturing. Exactly like how lime juice "cooks" a piece of salmon, alcohol and ethanol literally cooks bacteria off by denaturing the protein found in all bacteria.

Great care must be taken when choosing hand sanitizers. While most commercial hand sanitizers incorporate moisturizers, some do not. Originally used by medical personnel to sterilize their hands between patients, hand sanitizers without a moisturizing component can cause excessive dryness and, in extreme cases, dermititis, or commonly known as rashes.

Over-Sanitization on Children

The risk is even greater for young children. According to a guide by the Department of Health and Senior Services in the State of Missouri:
All sanitizers are classified as a pesticide. If the wrong product is used, or is mixed too strong, it could be toxic to children. Young children absorb chemicals into their bodies easier than older children and adults. Because of their small body size, a small amount of any chemical has a much greater affect on them than adults.

Understandably, home makers want to ensure that their households are clean and free from bacteria. But it seems that the cure could be more dangerous than the problem.

Furthermore, in the effort to achieve new heights of clinical sterility, children are developing weaker and weaker immune systems. Because their bodies are not given the chance to come into contact with as many types of bacteria, their immune systems become under-developed and weak. Weak immune systems translate into more illnesses later in life when they leave their sterile environment.

Back to the Basics of Cleanliness

But no one is suggesting a spit and polish approach to house cleaning either. Not that it is inherently bad to use sanitizing products but moderation is key here. Soap and warm water is still an effective means of removing a vast majority of bacteria harmful to health. There is no need to perforate every inch of the house with disinfectant to stay healthy.

And while hand sanitizers are a convenient means of cleaning hands in the absence of soap and water, they are not a substitute. Hand sanitizers were originally intended to eliminate the chance of cross-contamination in hospitals where the patients either have weak or no immune defences. Instead of using obsessively using hand sanitizers, simply practice the recommended steps of safe hygiene like sneezing into elbows (instead of the hand) or staying home when sick.

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