Soap Ain't as Simple as It Used to Be

A few years ago I found myself in the middle of a faculty discussion about technology literacy. The topic quickly changed to "what is important for students to know about the advances made in science and their impact on society?" This was all irrelevant for the actual point of the meeting, but such things often take on a life of their own. Anyway, a biology professor proferred the opinion that perhaps the greatest technological invention of all time was soap.

The technology of soap now includes a bewildering variety of the stuff. No marketing angle is left behind. But do they work as advertised? Apparently the higher-tech hand sanitizers don't work as well as one might like (see here).

A new article in Science News (Week of March 17, 2007; Vol. 171, No. 11 , p. 173) has even worse news:

Although there is little evidence of any benefit from using antibacterial soaps instead of regular soaps in the home, people in the United States employ around 1,500 kilograms of triclosan each day in kitchen and personal-care products.

Previous research has shown that triclosan reacts with chlorine, the most common disinfectant for drinking water. The resulting by-products include chloroform, suspected to cause cancer. Chloroform also forms when chlorine reacts with organic material in water.

In effect, they're saying that triclosan is a modern day snake oil.


At 9:24 PM, Blogger bd said...

And... if the anti-bacterial really did work, it would have the effect of flushing even more antibiotics into watersheds while exacerbating resistant bacteria. Geez... we can be stupid!

At 7:30 AM, Blogger dave said...

Yes, we don't seem to have a way to balance short term and long term goals with respect to this issue. The staggering amounts of antibiotics that go into raising vast numbers of livestock also get flushed into the environment. Traces of the antibiotics are measurable out in the wild. Given that bacteria are really good at swapping genetic information, it's obvious that we're currently not waging war on them very effectively. It seems to me that we're essentially pushing our internal immune systems out into the world. But we don't yet have a coordinated way to manage it all. So humanity is like a leviathan with a dysfunctional immune system. If you search for 'antibiotics' on sciencedaily.com you can find lots more.

At 7:43 AM, Blogger dave said...

PS The March 24 issue of New Scientist has an article about a new strain of TB that doesn't respond to ANY antibiotics. It's expected to spread rapidly in Africa, where millions of immune-deficient people will become infected.


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