Bacteria-killing goods may threaten human health and environment

Antimicrobial products — towels, sponges, cutting boards, and other household goods that promise to kill bacterial beasties and fungi — are now a $1 billion-a-year industry, but they may be harming human health and the environment. Triclosan, a popular microbe-icide, can combine with chlorine in tap water to form chloroform, which can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin. And some studies show that triclosan can break down to a form of dioxin when exposed to sunlight. At least one microbiologist, Roberto Kolter of Harvard Medical School, worries that rampant use of antimicrobials will obliterate weak bacteria and lead to superstrong mutant strains. While the U.S. EPA is looking into the dioxin connection, an industry scientist says the amount of triclosan that could wash out of a treated product is “infinitesimal,” and that a number of peer-reviewed studies have shown that using antimicrobials doesn’t create resistant strains. That doesn’t comfort eco-advocate Jay Feldman of Beyond Pesticides, however, who points out that no relevant long-term studies have been conducted.