?Wash Your Hands,? They Say, But Can We Be Too Sanitized?
Jul 16 2020

“Wash Your Hands,” They Say, But Can We Be Too Sanitized?

By: John Glover

Ramped-up efforts at public sanitation in response to the coronavirus pandemic have prompted something of a backlash, bordering on hysteria in some circles. You might have already encountered some of the slew of articles out there proselytizing against the excessive use of everyday cleaning products, click-baiting from the peanut gallery of pulp-science sites. Where Y'at interviewed Dr. Keith Clay, Professor and Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, whose research includes molecular and microbiology. According to Dr. Clay, current conditions don't present extra cause for concern about antimicrobial resistance.

Though worries about increased deployment of sanitizer and disinfectants turn out to be unfounded, it's unsurprising that they should arise in the first place. The issue possesses all the constitutive elements of a tragedy: We have the intention to stay healthy and the potential for blowback in the form of unintended consequences. The risk lies in the fact that, in our attempts at dispensing with rampant pathogens, we sow the seeds of our own demise by giving microbes the tools they need to resist human tools.

The underlying issue here is antimicrobial resistance, and it's an all-too-real phenomenon. According to the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) data, almost 3 million Americans will become infected by bacteria resistant to antibiotics every year. As many as 35,000 people die annually as a result of these infections. Dr. Clay says, "Antibiotic usage can select for and favor resistant bacteria."

Via the artificial selection created by human medicine, bacteria can evolve to become resistant at an alarmingly quick pace. This process is especially pertinent in the fields of agriculture and health care. Hospitals are a particularly extreme example, a representation of the worst anxieties surrounding the present crisis come to life. "It's been shown that bacteria can hang out in the nooks and crannies of hospital rooms—not necessarily infecting people, but persisting in the environment," says Dr. Clay. "They do heavy-duty cleaning. In that case, the heavy-duty sanitization can lead to resistance."

The hospital precedent would seem to provide ammunition for people worrying about the prospective tradeoffs associated with overcorrecting against the present disease outbreak. After all, walk in to just about any public business right now, and you'll be more likely than not to find a family-sized vat of hand sanitizer available at the front desk, which patrons will be applying liberally. Get a haircut, and you're liable to see your barber or hairdresser slinging barbicide or Lysol around like it's water. What if COVID-19 finally succeeds in transforming us all into hypochondriacs? There are several reasons not to be overly concerned about this contingency.

One, while there are bacteria, fungi, and viruses residing on quotidian surfaces such as kitchen countertops and restaurant door handles, these microorganisms aren't going to be pathogenic. "It's an inert surface. It's not a biological entity," explains Dr. Clay. "That's not a habitat that typically supports a lot of microbial diversity." Even if you do become overzealous-to-OCD in your attempts to sterilize your home or business and gainstay COVID-19's spread, you might promote some local resistance. But the microorganisms affected by this happening aren't likely to be the ones capable of infecting you.

Two, Dr. Clay says that "the exception to that would be if they're just being transferred. If someone touched something like a phone or a saltshaker at a restaurant, it might temporarily have viable microbes on the surface of the object, maybe for an hour or two hours or something like that." In the case of genuinely pathogenic microbes, they won't be on that surface to stay. Resistance develops over the course of generations, more often than not. Even in the case of, say, bacteria whose reproductive rate is famously—or, perhaps, infamously—prolific, accomplishing a process that slows in a few hours seems a tall order. Even if they do, the threat remains relatively negligible because, as previously established, these environments can't sustain diverse populations for very long.

Three, the diversity of cleaning supplies out there supplies a boon here. "There are many different formulations in these disinfectants and sanitizers. It's not like every sanitizer on the market has the exact same ingredients," explains Dr. Clay. Even if a population developed resistance to one product, that's no guarantee that they would be able to resist a different one. For people who are truly concerned about this issue, it couldn't hurt to alternate between different cleaning utilities. Doing so wouldn't sacrifice anything to perfect cleanliness and could help confound microbial populations' accumulation of resistances.

The possibility that this problem could morph into something pressing remains slim. Dr. Clay concludes, "In the greater scheme of things, it's probably not the greatest threat to human health." Extrapolating from his point, it shouldn't be used, either, as an excuse to tamper present efforts at containing the spread of the coronavirus. Maintaining proper sanitation is an integral part of coping with this public health crisis, as well as forestalling future ones.

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