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Antibacterial cleaning agents not necessary in the home

17/2000, 22.08.2000

The Federal Institute believes that cleaning with traditional products is sufficient to guarantee hygiene

Joint press release by the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA), Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine (BgVV) and the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)

(Press contacts: Karsten Klenner (UBA), Dr. Irene Lukassowitz (BgVV), Susanne Glasmacher (RKI))

The use of disinfectants in the home is, in principle, superfluous. Cleaning with customary agents is sufficient in the opinion of the Federal Environmental Agency (UBA), the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine (BgVV) and the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in order to guarantee hygiene. The federal authorities are reacting to advertising campaigns by manufacturers of detergents and cleaning agents which propagate more and more products with bactericidal, antibacterial and antimicrobial action. The use of these agents places an unnecessary burden on the environment and brings with it health risks. In the medical area the three Berlin authorities believe that the targeted use of disinfectants and antiseptics in sufficiently high concentrations is essential.

Gaps in knowledge about personal hygiene and the hygienic handling of foods are a fundamental problem in the home and the main reason for food infections. Traditional cleaning processes with water, if necessary also with agents which dissolve fat or protein, and vigorous surface treatment (scrubbing, brushing) are sufficient in order to reduce any contamination to a safe health level. The most important step towards protection against infection from salmonella, campylobacter or EHEC (stated by industry as the reason for the need of household disinfection) is washing hands, particularly after using the toilet. Particular care should be taken when handling perishable foods like raw meat and poultry products and foods which contain fresh egg.

When the basic rules of hygiene are complied with, BgVV believes that the use of antibacterial cleaning products is superfluous, particularly as their efficacy has frequently not been proven. As a rule the concentration and the exposure time of the antibacterial substances are not sufficient to ensure effective disinfection.

RKI also points out that the possible consequences of a change in the natural skin flora of man as a consequence of antibacterial consumer products for cleaning or body care are not foreseeable. Furthermore, there is a risk that the use of bactericides in consumer products will lead to the selection of widely efficacious resistance mechanisms which can also affect antibiotics.

Some of the biocide substances used are critical from the environmental angle and have already been identified as dangerous substances within the framework of international agreements on the protection of the seas. In particular, corresponding concentrations of biocidal substances containing phenols and halogens may impair the work of biological sewage treatment plants. This will reduce the cleansing performance of the sewage treatment plants and contaminants will reach waters and seas. There, they can damage aquatic organisms and impair drinking water treatment. Therefore, UBA deems the use of antimicrobial substances in detergents and cleaning agents to be undesirable. This applies particularly against the backdrop of the global discussion on sustainable development, the so-called "Responsible Care" initiative by industry and the generally accepted precautionary principle in environmental protection. The new Biocides Directive also has the goal of guaranteeing a high level of protection for the environment by regulating the placing on the market of biocide products.

Many of the antimicrobial substances used are common ingredients in detergents and cleaning agents. They are part of the formulation because of other properties which they have but which may also act in a bactericidal manner. BgVV, RKI and UBA are anxious that the supposed additional advantage of a biocidal effect of the detergents and cleaning agents claimed in advertising could encourage consumers to use the cleaning products more frequently and at increasingly large volumes. This would unnecessarily increase the chemical input into wastewater and surface waters. A replacement of necessary and hygienically effective, traditional cleaning by supposedly safer "disinfectants" could mean that consumer behaviour will have a negative effect on health and on the environment.

This joint press release by the three federal authorities is a response to current reporting in the media. The Stiftung Warentest already outlined the worrying developments in the June issue of its magazine "Test" which have led to more and more superfluous or even damaging chemicals being used.


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