Antibacterial Reports Cause Public Health Scare

Antibacterial soaps and cleansers offer little protection against infectious disease, the media smugly reported this week.

Consumers have once again had the wool pulled over their eyes by businesses exploiting the public’s hyper-health consciousness, intoned the media reports.

Once again, though, the media focused on a sensational non-story while utterly missing the real and scurrilous story.

The news hook for the media reports was a new study in the March 2 issue of the "Annals of Internal Medicine" reporting that “tested antibacterial products (search) did not reduce the risk for symptoms of viral infectious diseases in households.” The researchers compared antibacterial product use and infectious illness among 238 mostly Hispanic households in a New York City neighborhood.

Even assuming that the result is correct, my response is a big, fat D-U-H!

The products, after all, are called anti-b-a-c-t-e-r-i-a-l-s. They work on b-a-c-t-e-r-i-a ― not viruses. Antibacterial products are designed and marketed for, and can only reduce the risk of, illness from bacteria, not from viruses.

The researchers, in fact, admitted (in the fine print) that their study “did not preclude the potential contribution of these products to reducing symptoms of bacterial diseases in the home.”

Moreover, the study didn’t really prove that antibacterials don’t reduce the overall incidence of infectious disease. The number of households included in the study was small. The researchers aren’t sure that the antibacterial products were used regularly or correctly. The researchers don’t know the causes or sources of the reported illnesses. One can, after all, contract an infectious disease outside the home.

The more interesting aspect of the study was wholly lost on reporters who always seem eager for a sensational story while typically lacking familiarity with pertinent facts.

The study was launched four years ago ― I remember because Elaine Larson, the lead researcher, and I were on CNN’s "Talk Back Live" discussing the controversy over whether consumer use of antibacterial products would lead to the development of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

Larson stated on the program that the purpose of her research ― the first of its kind ― was two-fold: “Do those who have used anti-bacterial products have less of a risk of infectious disease than those who don’t?" and “Do those who use an anti-bacterial product on their skin have the emergence of [bacteria more resistant] to something like Triclosan (the active ingredient in most antibacterials)?"

The good news ― not reported by the media or Larson herself ― is that the study produced no evidence that antibacterial products are producing bacteria that are resistant to Triclosan or antibiotic drugs.

The failure of Larson’s study to indict antibacterials on this count did not, however, impede fearmongering.

“In addition to possibly promoting the evolution of dangerous superbugs, using antibacterial products in the home might make children more likely to develop allergies and asthma,' said Stuart Levy, a professor of molecular biology, microbiology and medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine,” reported Washington Post reporter Rob Stein.

Stein should have done more background research.

Four years ago ―on that "Talk Back Live" program ― I exposed Levy as a biased poseur-scientist fomenting panic for profit.

Levy is not just a professor at Tufts as Stein reported. Levy is also the vice-chairman, chief scientific officer and co-founder of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, a company who wants to sell its own disinfectants for home use ― disinfectants that supposedly “overcome the problems of antibacterial resistance (search).”

Levy has been attempting to scare the public about antibacterial products for years, apparently in hopes of generating investor interest in his company. Should Paratek ever have its own antibacterial product line, Levy will have laid the groundwork for destroying the existing market for antibacterial products.

I don’t know whether home use of antibacterial products significantly reduces the risk of infectious disease. Most bacteria can be washed off through diligent scrubbing with plain soap and water. Antibacterial products correctly used may provide an extra margin of hygiene for those who want it. Certainly hospitals have relied on antibacterials for decades.

I do know, however, that media reports on the antibacterial controversy need to be disinfected of fear-based profiteering.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

Respond to the Writer