Antibacterial Chemicals Common in Indoor Dust Are Linked to Antibiotic Resistance

Amanda MacMillan :

Triclosan, the ingredient recently banned from soaps, is present in all sorts of household products.

"Indoor Dust's Antibacterial Chemicals and Antibiotic Resistance: Unveiling the Link"
Image by Willfried Wende from Pixabay

Indoor dust is filled with antibacterial chemicals, says a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, and they could be contributing to deadly global health crisis of antibiotic resistance.

Scientists have linked several of these chemicals, such as triclosan and triclocarban, to hormone disruption, bacterial resistance, and cancer. As a result, the FDA ruled last week that household soaps cannot have these chemicals added to them anymore. Furthermore, researchers emphasize that these chemicals do not enhance the effectiveness of the products in killing germs and preventing illnesses.

That’s a good first step, says Erica Hartmann, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northwestern University and author of the new report on indoor dust. But her study shows that it won’t solve the problem completely.

“The FDA ruling doesn’t have any impact on paints, baby toys, bedding, kitchen utensils, the list goes on,” she says.

Manufacturers add the chemicals to these products during the manufacturing process, but they do not remain confined to the products.

Hartmann states, “Triclosan has been detected in nearly every dust sample tested globally.” Considering the extensive use of antimicrobial products, it would not be surprising if most households had this type of dust present.

For her study, Hartmann and her colleagues analyzed dust samples from a mixed-use athletic and educational facility, and found that samples with higher amounts of these chemicals also had high levels of genes associated with resistance to multiple drugs. In all, they found six separate links between antibacterial dust and antibiotic-resistant genes.

The findings couldn’t definitively show that the chemicals caused the presence of these genes, but they do support a growing body of evidence that the two are closely related. And while indoor dust tends to contain much lower levels of these ingredients than, say, toothpaste or antibacterial soap, Hartmann says that exposure could still be significant. After all, she writes, humans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors.

More research is needed to determine

the exact role that indoor dust plays in antibiotic resistance, Hartmann says—and to figure out what, exactly, people can do about it.

Keeping your home ventilated might help, as well. “We know that whether a building has a mechanical air handling system (like air conditioning) or gets its air directly through the windows has an effect on which bacteria we find indoors,” she says, “but we haven’t finished the follow-up study looking at chemicals.”

Hartmann is now studying dust from additional buildings

, including residential homes. She hopes her work will add to other research showing that antibacterial chemicals can often do more harm than good, and help shape policy and smart-decision making about their use.

“I think we need to find responsible ways to use antimicrobials and antibiotics everywhere—at home, in agriculture, and in medicine—to truly tackle the problem of antibiotic resistance,” she says. “In some cases, like in household soaps, that may mean not using them at all.”

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