For most of us, washing hands with soap and water after taking care of bathroom business seems like a no-brainer. Like lowering the toilet seat after you’re done, it’s a sort of moral obligation to society. But there may be some negative health effects from hand washing after all. That’s because at this university, which happens to be home to researchers who years ago reported that the chemical triclosan may make disease-causing bacteria less responsive to antibiotic treatment, many of the bathroom soaps paradoxically contain triclosan.

Triclosan is a pesticide that many manufacturers use to make products — from soap to socks to even toothpaste — antibacterial. In April, shortly before the passage of a partial ban on triclosan by the European Union, the Food and Drug Administration announced it will take a closer look at whether triclosan has direct, negative impacts on human health.

Like alcohol, triclosan is a germ-buster. But unlike alcohol, it’s been shown that tricolsan doesn’t kill indiscriminately. Whereas alcohol kills universally by dehydration, triclosan is more like an antibiotic in that it targets a specific bacterial mechanism. Triclosan has been shown to be susceptible to things called efflux pumps in bacteria, some varieties of which allow bacteria to puke out antibiotics or triclosan. Bacteria have had efflux pumps for a long time now, but by killing all of the bacteria except those with the most effective pumps, triclosan appears to be speeding the evolutionary process — helping to create super bugs that can burp up not just triclosan but most life-saving antibiotic medications as well.

Triclosan isn’t the only thing making antibiotics less effective. Bacteria naturally develop resistance to the antibiotics we throw at them. It’s a problem that, according to a report from PR News Wire last week, causes more American deaths per year than HIV/AIDS, and it’s been widely recognized as a grave threat to the human race. That may sound overly dramatic, but bacterial resistance to antibiotics threatens to throw us back to a time when illnesses we consider trivial now, like strep throat and sinus infections, aren’t treatable with medication and can develop into serious illnesses. Because of this, triclosan’s impact on bacterial resistance needs to be taken seriously.

And, amazingly, antibacterial soaps haven’t been shown to make much difference. As Scientific American magazine reported in 2007, an FDA panel found there was insufficient evidence to say there is any benefit from having antibacterial agents in consumer products. Antibacterial products may provide some benefit for surgeons scrubbing in to perform surgery (one purpose for which triclosan was first introduced) or for those with weakened immune systems. But for most of us, good ole’ soap and water get rid of contaminants just fine without doing any long-term damage.

Yet despite the lack of evidence to say antibacterial products do any good and the building evidence that they’re actually doing harm, triclosan has continued to grow more prevalent in American society. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found triclosan in the urine of 3 out of every 4 Americans they tested. Scientific American also reported that triclosan has been found in human breast milk and human blood plasma. And the University is no exception to the triclosan pandemic: Snooping around in Bursley and Mosher-Jordan, I noticed that every soap dispenser I found contained soap with triclosan.

The bottom line is that while the University has commendably stepped up its efforts to control the spread of disease following the outbreak of H1N1, its methods may be having the opposite effect in the long run. It’s interesting to note that many deaths from H1N1 in this country were actually caused by other complications from the virus — very commonly by bacterial pneumonia. Strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae, it turns out, have developed strong resistance to traditional antibiotic treatment. And an article published in 2002 in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy directly linked some forms of antibiotic resistance in S. pneumoniae to efflux pumps — the very same pumps triclosan is thought to enhance.

It’s worth acknowledging that, when it comes right down to it, you should still wash your hands. There’s no better way to prevent the spread of infection than to wash regularly with soap, even if that soap contains triclosan. Starting with the University, though, society must take the health implications of antibiotic resistance seriously. That means using antibiotic medications exactly as prescribed and only when necessary. And it means taking triclosan out of our urine, and lives, for good.

Nicholas Clift can be reached at nclift@umich.edu.

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