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Exercise caution when using disinfectants!

24/2003, 13.11.2003

Joint press release of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and the national Austrian environmental agency Umweltbundesamt GmbH Vienna

Disinfectants don't belong in the home! This was the clear conclusion of experts attending a seminar on the "Risks of using disinfectants in the home" which was jointly staged by the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and the national Austrian environmental agency Umweltbundesamt GmbH Wien in Vienna on 6 November 2003 under the aegis of the German Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Reactor Safety and the Austrian Ministry for Agriculture and Forestry, Environment and Water Management. Invitations were issued to experts from scientific and business circles as well as to representatives of non-governmental organisations.

However, the experts did also point out that the use of disinfectants in the home may be advised by doctors in some specific cases.

A sufficient level of hygiene in the home can be achieved, amongst other things, by:

  • adequate cleaning using simple cleaning products

  • frequently changing cleaning clothes

  • regularly cleaning the fridge

  • frequently emptying bins

  • keeping the bathroom, kitchen and WC dry

  • washing your hands!

Disinfectants contain substances which can be harmful to health and the environment. For instance, they can trigger allergies and eczema. There have been repeatedly reports of poisoning accidents caused by the direct intake of concentrated solutions by children and elderly people. Disinfectants can be harmful for the environment when they are used in large amounts in an unnecessary and uncontrolled manner. This is because they kill aquatic organisms and can cause major disruptions to the functioning of sewage treatment plants.

Bactericides, i.e. antiseptic agents, are used in many products and finished goods like socks, sports clothing but also in flooring, bath mats, bin bags, fridges etc. Frequently, their efficacy has not been proven in these applications. Nevertheless, these agents are to be considered harmful for health. In the opinion of experts the use of bactericides is superfluous in the above areas.

The use of disinfectants requires a high degree of expert knowledge. Incorrectly used disinfectants are not effective. Opinions differed amongst the experts as to whether the incorrect use of disinfectants leads to the emergence of resistances and whether disinfectants influence the efficacy of antibiotics. The experts called for further research efforts on these subjects.

The final results of the expert discussions can be summed up as follows:

In advertising agents with antiseptic action are often offered to the consumer in an irresponsible way (e.g. "Antibacterial washing-up liquid kills 98% of all bacteria"). The experts, therefore, call for greater awareness amongst consumers. This awareness campaign should start in schools. The goal is to achieve a sufficient degree of hygiene in the home without resorting to products which are harmful to health and the environment.

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