Selling superbugs: how those disinfectants are making us sick

Take a few high-profile hospital infections or foodborne bacteria scares, a pandemic warning, our culture’s natural aversion to germs, and a relentless scare campaign – and it’s party time for disinfectant manufacturers.  It’s a big market, too: the industry journal Food Quality News issued a report last April predicting that North American sales of disinfectant hand cleansers and hard surface cleaning products will top $1.2 billion next year, mostly from key industry players like Arch Chemicals, Dow, Ecolab, Lonza, Rohm and Haas, and Troy. According to this report:

These gains will result from increased consumer concerns fueled in large part by well-publicized lapses in proper sanitation techniques in food and beverage processing facilities.”

But consumers should stop and think before they squirt out another blob of that hand gel: using disinfectants could cause bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics as well as to the disinfectant itself, according to new research published in the January issue of the journal Microbiology.

Researchers from the National University of Ireland in Galway found that by adding increasing amounts of disinfectant to laboratory cultures of bacteria called Pseudomonas aeruginosa, the bacteria could adapt to survive not only the disinfectant but also ciprofloxacin — a commonly-prescribed antibiotic — even without being exposed to it.

This is particularly frightening in hospital settings, where disinfectants are used to kill bacteria on surfaces to prevent their spread. If the bacteria manage to survive and go on to infect patients, antibiotics are used to treat them. Bacteria that can resist both disinfectants and antibiotics pose a serious threat to hospital patients.

Importantly, the Irish study showed that when very small non-lethal amounts of disinfectant were added to bacteria in culture, the adapted bacteria were more likely to survive compared to the non-adapted bacteria. Dr. Gerard Fleming, who led the study, said:

“This means that residue from incorrectly diluted disinfectants left on hard surfaces could actually promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. What is more worrying is that bacteria seem to be able to adapt to resist antibiotics without even being exposed to them.”

Dr. Fleming also stressed the importance of studying environmental factors that might promote antibiotic resistance.

“We need to investigate the effects of using more than one type of disinfectant on promoting antibiotic-resistant strains. This will increase the effectiveness of both our first and second lines of defence particularly against hospital-acquired infections.”

What can you do at home?  First, stop buying disinfectant hand cleansers and hard surface cleaning products. 

The Canadian Paediatric Society does NOT recommend the use of any antimicrobial-impregnated household products, warning that in most situations, the use of antiseptics and antimicrobials is unnecessary. What the CPS and other health agencies do recommend is good hand hygiene using plain soap and hot water.

Read the CPS recommendations in Antimicrobial Products in the Home.

5 thoughts on “Selling superbugs: how those disinfectants are making us sick

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  2. Good example of how we have all been alarmed into purchasing all this unnecessary anti-germ stuff much to the delight of corporate shareholders.

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  3. Hello Carolyn, Somehow we have missed the biggest lesson: SOAP and WATER works. In hospital settings however the growth of superbugs is truly scary.

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