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Losing Muscle in Germ Warfare

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Antibacterial soap’s efficacy has been under scrutiny for the past several years. New research now points to the deleterious effect triclosan, the active ingredient in antibacterial soap, has on muscular, skeletal, and cardiac cells.

Antibacterial products were initially designed for the medical community to prevent the spread of germs and disease. The public caught wind and soon there was a demand for antibacterial products on a household level. Household antibacterial products were manufactured using significantly lower concentrations of triclosan than their medical counterparts because their intended uses were vastly different. Clinical-strength products had to sterilize medical facilities and equipment where personal health and even life and death are at stake. Household cleaners, on the other hand, are used for much lighter applications, like disinfecting kitchens and bathrooms and preventing food poisoning and common illnesses.

Antibacterial products have grown more popular since their inception despite recent scientific findings that showed them to be no more effective than regular soap. Allison Aiello at the University of Michigan School of Public Health concluded in 2007 that antibacterial soaps containing triclosan did not kill more germs or reduce infectious symptoms any more than regular hand soap without triclosan. In fact, improper use of antibacterial products makes bacteria and viruses even stronger. The Center for Disease Control recommends that people wash their hands for a minimum of 20 seconds, a recommendation that goes largely ignored. When germs are exposed to a partial application of antibacterial agents, the stronger germs survive and pass on their resistance to the next generation. As this continues to happen on a widespread basis and over several generations, some germs and viruses will eventually become completely resistant to all antibacterial efforts and graduate to superbug status.

On top of its inefficacy and the perils of consumer misuse, triclosan’s safety is also being called into question. Researchers at UC-Davis and the University of Colorado found triclosan can potentially damage skin, muscle, bone, and tissue. After exposing a group of mice to an amount of triclosan the average human and household pet would encounter on a daily basis, their heart functions decreased by 25% after 20 minutes of exposure. After one hour, their manual dexterity was reduced by 18%. After swimming in triclosan-tainted water for a week, fathead minnows saw drastic reductions in their swimming power and speed. Most disturbing, however, was the damage triclosan wreaked upon isolated skeletal and cardiac cells. The compound prevented calcium ions flowing between muscle and skeletal fibers, leading to muscle damage and cardiac failure.

Returning to traditional lye-based soaps seems like a practical solution. The scientific community doesn’t want to outright ban triclosan, just reduce its ubiquity in household products. However, triclosan has found its way into toothpastes, mouthwash, deodorant, trash bags, carpets, and other appliances and products not specifically used for cleaning or disinfecting. Triclosan production and consumption is so extensive that it is found in natural waterways and soil and even human fluids like blood and breast milk. Considering triclosan’s ability to restrict muscle contractions and reduce cardiac and tissue functions, its increasing presence in the natural world is deeply unsettling. And when regular soap has the same benefits without any of the health detriments, the need for triclosan-based products seems nil.

Aiello, A., Larson, E., & Levy, S. (2007). Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or Just Risky? Clinical Infectious Diseases, 45 (Supplement 2) DOI: 10.1086/519255

Cherednichenko G, Zhang R, Bannister RA, Timofeyev V, Li N, Fritsch EB, Feng W, Barrientos GC, Schebb NH, Hammock BD, Beam KG, Chiamvimonvat N, & Pessah IN (2012). Triclosan impairs excitation-contraction coupling and Ca2+ dynamics in striated muscle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (35), 14158-63 PMID: 22891308

Photo: sydeen/Flickr

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