Antimicrobial Overkill

Disinfectant overkill with spray bottle and plastic glove

Antimicrobial cleaners and treatments—disinfectants—kill bacteria, viruses, and fungi, but they also have potential harmful health and environmental effects. They don’t distinguish between good bacteria and bad bacteria. But, a lot of people continue to use antibacterial household products that promise hygiene and safety. Everyone wants to be safe, don’t they?

Use of disinfectants such as nano silver in everyday situations is overkill. Even in more extreme situations, there is a lot of debate about whether the antimicrobial benefits outweigh the potential risks.

Nano silver is not new but it has been used in more household products in the past decade, so concerns have seen more publicity. It can be embedded in plastics (pacifiers and baby bottles), coated on textiles (anti-bacterial socks or baby products), and even added to soaps labelled “all natural” (though it is banned in Canadian organics).

The U.S. EPA is considering an application to register nano silver as a pesticide, which the Natural Resources Defense Council vigorously opposes as “illegal, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous to the public.” Unfortunately, the application to use nano silver as a pesticide is just a clever way to keep it on the market until a final decision is made. Nanomaterials are regulated by Environment Canada as pollution and waste.

Though marketed by some as an alternative cure-all, even most alternative medicine practitioners warn against claims made for unregulated medicinal silver use.

Nano silver particles are super small, 1-100 nanometers, which is a lot closer to the size of an atom than to the width of a hair. Their size means they can penetrate and accumulate in tissue. Particles coating fabrics don’t necessarily stay on fabrics. Since the particles are too small to be filtered out during the wastewater treatment process after they have been freed from antibacterial soap or socks or diaper bags or towels or even washers, the particles stay in the water after they wash down the drain. These antibacterial particles could even kill microbes used in wastewater treatment. Once these nano particles are released into the waterways, aquatic life will encounter them. A study of the effect of nano silver on zebrafish “found that some died and others were left with dramatic mutations.” Studies find problems in plant life with nano particles in soil.

Given that nano silver can have an effect on the immune system, cause neurological problems, result in kidney damage, and boost greenhouse emissions, it looks like a threat to public health.

Too many disinfectants do the job so well that they harm more than the bacteria they are intended to kill. It’s like using a sledgehammer for a push pin. For cautions and alternatives to heavy-handed disinfectants like chlorine bleach, Triclosan, and nano-silver, read Disinfectant Overkill from Women’s Voices for the Earth.

Reduce toxins and potentially risky new technologies hidden in household products by making your own cleaners. Women’s Voices for the Earth has a room-by-room guide to reducing disinfectant exposure.

Image © Photka |

Do I Need to Disinfect My Cloth Diapers?

Short answers:

  1. no
  2. probably not
  3. not unless they are infected

With the previous post saying NO to chlorine bleach and with the chlorine bleach publicist (see update to NO chlorine bleach post) mentioning the need to disinfect cloth diapers and asserting that hydrogen peroxide will not disinfect, I want to answer this question we get often enough that it is one of our frequently asked questions.

Shouldn’t we disinfect our cloth diapers? No, not unless they are infected.

Let’s start by going back to bleach. The problems with chlorine bleach happen before, during, and after you use it in your wash—before in the process manufacturer, during as it breaks down fibers, and after as it can mix with organic matter to create organochlorines.

Alternatives to chlorine bleach depend on your purpose.

The Idea That White Equals Clean

Are you trying to whiten? Western cultures obviously have a preoccupation equating whitenness with cleanliness. Without getting into the deep cultural issues this brings up, let’s stick with cloth diapers. Use the sun. Sunlight (ultraviolet light) will whiten your cloth diapers. You can help the sun along by adding lemon juice.

Whitening diapers is easy without bleach, but if you really want white diapers, try these eco-friendly alternatives to bleach from The Good Human.

Are You Trying to Disinfect?

The word “disinfectant” has positive connotations in our culture because people think of this as slightly beyond clean, but why would you need to disinfect unless unless something is first infected? Most bacteria inside of us isn’t infection, it’s normal.

When you have a dirty diaper, you just need to wash away whatever was on it. A diaper doesn’t need to be DISinfected unless it was INFECTED. A diaper can be infected if your child has had a bacterial infection.

So, how do you know if you have an infection? Diarrhea is often an indicator. If your doctor told you your child has had an infection, you’ve got the evidence you need.

If you are trying to disinfect cloth diapers because your child has had a virus, try hydrogen peroxide or oxy bleach.

Hydrogen peroxide solutions do in fact disinfect
and have been used in hospitals for decades. In fact they do such a good job, that their use has been curtailed in recent years. The characteristic fizzing that shows the peroxide is doing its job has been shown to damage the edges of wounds, slowing healing. Simple saline is replacing peroxide in many cases now.

I also found a lot of anecdotal evidence of hospitals using grapeseed extract (GSE) based cleansers to clean equipment—again, that’s not medicinally or internally but as a cleanser. I didn’t find any hospitals’ own documentation, but I’m interested to find out more. If I do, I’ll post.

The natural, normal flora of the human gut and the human stool is not something you want to kill. You and your child are full of bacteria, bacteria that is overwhelmingly beneficial.

When this natural flora comes out in cloth diapers, you definitely want to clean them. Washing in hot water and detergent will clean cloth diapers sufficiently.

If you need to disinfect, sunlight—ultraviolet light—will disinfect. So will peroxide bleach. With neither of those do you need to worry about bacteria becoming resistant to anti-bacterials or anti-microbials.

The final short answer: if you need to disinfect your diapers, use light (ultraviolet light of the sun), heat (very hot dryer), and hydrogen-peroxide-based bleach.

Read on

Easy-to-understand article on human flora.

More technical, but with lots of pictures.

Explains well the difference between anti-bacterials/anti-microbials/anti-fungals and disinfectants—and the issues with overuse of the former.

Nice overview of various disinfectants.

In this answer from an “Ask a Scientist” website (copublished by the Department of Energy), the scientist specifically describes peroxide bleach as “very effective against many microbes.”