Common Cleaning Products May Fuel Superbugs

Everyone agrees that clean surfaces help to keep us healthy and protected against illnesses. But, experts have warned that bleach and alcohol used to clean homes and hospitals may be speeding the development of drug-resistant bacteria.

Biocides” like bleach and alcohol kill bacteria and microorganisms in our homes and medical settings. They can be used to clean your floors and counters. But also surgical equipment and skin in hospitals. Now, scientists warn that overusing biocides may actually fuel antibiotic resistance.

Scientists from Macquarie Univ. studied Acinetobacter baumannii. The highly contagious bacteria can cause a wide range of illnesses, including meningitis and pneumonia. They saw that the bacteria became stronger and more antibiotic-resistant when exposed to the antiseptic used to clean skin before surgery. The antiseptic, called chlorhexidine, is also found in some mouthwashes — it’s not isolated to hospitals.  

We all think that superbugs are caused by the overprescribing of antibiotics. Or we think they come from people not finishing their antibiotics as they should. But cleaning supplies in our daily lives play a role. Researchers are concerned because “little is known about their impact on the emergence and spread of” superbugs.

Moreover, unlike antibiotics, we all use cleaning supplies all the time. “In contrast to antibiotics, the use of biocides is largely unregulated.” You need a prescription to get antibiotics. No one tells you whether you should or shouldn’t mop your floors with bleach or use cleaners on your counters.

They found that even small amounts of the cleaner — like the amount that might be left on a counter — is enough to promote hardiness in the bacteria. The researchers want to go outside the lab and study how cleaning products impact bacteria in the real world, to learn how we should be safely using them.

Antibiotic resistance causes 1.3 million deaths a year. The World Health Organization warns that it’s fueled by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics as well as poor prevention of the spread of illnesses. They warn, “Without urgent action, we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.”  

Dr. Helen Zgurskaya of the Univ. of Oklahoma disagrees, “We already live in a post-antibiotic era, and things will get much worse unless new solutions are found for antibiotic resistance in clinics.”

She worked with a team composed of researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and King’s College London to make a “molecular wedge.” It goes between the inner and outer cell membrane walls and increases the potency of antibiotics.

Dr. Zgurskaya believes that her discovery might help to “mitigate an impending crisis.”

Hopefully, new discoveries, like Dr. Zgurskaya’s, will pave the way to a safer future. Until then, you might want to think twice before scrubbing your house down with bleach. No one is suggesting that you live in squalor. A clean home is vital to aid your health. But the old expression is that it takes a peck of dirt before you die. It seems like a bit of dust might keep bacteria at bay, too! Or, just use ordinary soap and water instead of something antibacterial.

Banner image: CDC via Unsplash

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