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  • Graeme Warnell

Do anti bacterial, disinfectant and chemical cleaning products do more harm than good ?

Since the beginning of the Covid 19 Pandemic, disinfectants, antibacterial gels and chemical cleaning products have been disappearing from the shelves faster than they could be restocked. The public and businesses has been trying to protect their homes and offices from the virus, but is the wide use of such products doing more harm than good?

Disinfectants, anti bacterials and chemical cleaning products contribute to poor indoor air quality and contain chemicals that can promote cancer, reproductive disorders, and respiratory ailments to people who use them or are exposed to them on a regular basis.

In 2019 the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work recognised that in particular cleaning staff need to be better protected against dangerous substances.

Too often it is assumed that products available straight from a supermarket shelf simply cannot be ”too” harmful. However, little consideration is ever given to the long term exposure effects of these products, especially when used in confined spaces or what happens when they are mixed with other products.

Many employees in the cleaning industry are minimum wage workers, undertaking cleaning as a secondary source of income. Moreover, many of them are migrant workers unfamiliar with risk assessment and instructions that are not in their native tongue. There is often little push back from these front-line workers unable to voice their concerns about the impact of disinfecting and cleaning products on their health.

When we look at antibacterial products and broad-spectrum disinfectants, we assume they can only be “good “as they kill germs and bacteria and we usually look at bacteria in the context of disease and illness. However, when it comes to these products there are additional hidden hazards that consumers are seldom aware of.

Disinfectant products are selected for the mass destruction of microorganisms. They do not discriminate between “good” and “bad” microbes and they typically contain many persistent, bio accumulative toxins. A common component of antibacterial products is Triclosan (TCS). Studies have shown that Triclosan (TCS) alters the way some hormones work in the body. To date, traces of TCS have been discovered in fish and in human breast milk. It is so prevalent that a survey by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemical present in the urine of 75 percent of Americans over the age of 5.

Amidst the hysteria regarding the need to clean and disinfect during the Covid pandemic, primarily driven by the major cleaning chemical producers, society was never really given the real facts.

1. Bacteria and microbes are everywhere, including inside our bodies.

2. Most bacteria are not harmful to us

3. They fundamentally drive the efficiency of any ecosystem.

4. Antibacterial products do not kill viruses

Little time, money or effort was ever given in helping the public understand how to get rid of a virus safely. Basically, any virus has a protective outer membrane which is composed of a lipid fat layer. If this lipid fat layer is destroyed the virus cannot survive. One of the most effective ways of destroying the virus membrane is the use of normal SOAP AND WATER. However, selling just soap is not very profitable. The antibacterial products market has exploded over the recent years and it is estimated that the cleaning industry contributes over £24 billion to the UK economy.

Whilst we are busy trying to purge all living bacteria from our homes and workplaces it is important to note that like viruses, bacteria can develop resistance to substances and also mutate.

When a bacterial population is placed under stress through cleaning with an antibacterial product a small percentage of these bacteria armed with special defence mechanisms can survive and reproduce to become more resistant.

Society has seen this “cross resistance” happen within its hospitals where the continued use of antibiotics and antibacterial products has led to the rise of the “super-bug” – one of the highest risks and biggest killers in our hospitals today. We need to think carefully if this is the type of bacterial mutation we want to create in our domestic or work environments ?

The potential harm the cleaning substances have on the planet go well beyond their impact on the user or the risk of dangerous mutation of some microorganisms. Huge volumes of toxic cleaning chemicals enter our sewage systems, soakaways, rivers, lakes and eventually oceans. They are consumed by the animals we eat. After evaporation they return in rainfall only to be absorbed by the plants and crops we cultivate. And of course, they return in the water we bathe in and drink. In the UK nearly every stream, river and lake failed in terms of water quality checks for harmful chemicals whilst PFA’s (permanently toxic compounds), are becoming more prevalent in our drinking water each day.

What is critical for us to understand is that humans cannot live without bacteria.

It may make you feel nauseous but as you read this there are billions of bacteria swarming harmlessly all over your body and even more inside it. It has been estimated that the bacteria inside your body outnumber the body's cells ten to one – and yet we are not all dying because they are an essential part of our existence.

Bacteria in our gut help release nutrients from the food we eat and produce essential vitamins such as biotin and vitamin K. The beneficial role of bacteria does not just apply to humans - it applies to every living organism including plants.

So, what happens if over time, we kill off a significant proportion of bacteria and create a chemically toxic antibacterial environment ?

In the worst case scenario animals such as cows and pigs that rely heavily on bacteria to digest food in their guts will start dying. Studies have already shown that animals raised in a sterile environment fail to grow and seldom reach adulthood.

Can we then rely on plants to feed the population? Unfortunately no. Very simply, no bacteria also means no plant growth. In soil and water bacteria act as the recyclers. They are vital in keeping nitrogen cycling through the ecosystem. Carbon and nitrogen are vital to plant growth. The lack of bacteria in the ecosystem slows this cycle down and the crop growth suffers. Without bacteria around to break down biological waste (including human waste) and dead organisms, nothing would decompose and no nutrients would return back to the system.

When speaking of waste, we need to be aware that our sewers now represent a chemical soup of waste, toxic chemicals and cleaning products, whereas in the past they would have been alive with huge concentrations of bacteria. This change in the composition of our waste water contributes to the rise of the fat-berg, a nuisance that costs the UK £80m per year to deal with. If there are not enough bacteria to digest and break down oils, fats and grease within the sewers they simply accumulate and block the pipes.

So by now you are probably looking at your cleaning cupboard not knowing how many of your products contribute to pollution and which ones you should replace with something less harmful.

The key issue here is the need for reduction and appropriate use. If everyone could reduce the amount of chemical cleaning products they used, this would be a massive step forwards for the environment.

Where you have to use a toxic chemical because there are no alternatives available, use it in a way that limits its ability to enter the natural environment through drains and sewers.

Having undertaken a review of the chemical cleaning products a UK shipping company used I was able to highlight that nearly 60% of the harmful chemicals they were using could be replaced with just 2 nature based products. This is especially important as the cleaning is taking place in port or at sea where the risk of direct contamination into the marine ecosystem is high.

With soil and water being two of the most treasured ecological resources we have, an environmentally sustainable approach must be applied to balance our cleaning needs versus preserving the environment for future generations.

By transitioning away from chemical cleaning products where there is a viable nature based solution you could help reduce the pollution of our rivers and oceans, create a safer workplace for your employees, reduce your carbon footprint, and put something good back into the environment. We think it’s something you should consider ……don’t you ?

About the author: Graeme Warnell

Having worked alongside some of the worlds worst polluting companies I now help educate and guide businesses and organisations on how they can reduce contaminated waste as well as their carbon footprint using nature based products instead of harmful chemical ones. I offer this as a FREE SERVICE and can then recommend alternative non chemical products from our TRUSTED network of suppliers. I actively work in the R&D of the nature based solutions recommended. I always welcome any new challenges regarding waste management and environmentally responsible cleaning issues you may have.

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