Let me preface here, while this blog post is clearly going to be a complaint, I do not want to come across as the old lady saying, “In my day we walked barefoot in the snow twenty miles to school, uphill, both ways!”  Because, that’s not how I roll.  I do not necessarily believe that things were better in yesteryear.  In fact, most things clearly were NOT.  I’m a progress kind of girl.  That being said, really? So much plastic, and what’s with the desire to create a super bug bacteria?  I mean, honestly.

There are many things about life today that I find decidedly odd.  For instance, when I was a kid and I wanted a drink of water, I went to the cupboard, got a glass and filled it with water from the faucet.  Now people are addicted to those stupid plastic bottles and it’s become an environmental nightmare on several different fronts.  The plastic bottle and the huge amount of plastic bags and other petroleum-based items increasing our dependence on foreign oil combined with a staggering waste disposal problem make me crazy, but that’s not my gripe du jour.

No, I want to talk bacteria.  Sexy, right?

I scratch my head when well-meaning adults offer me and my children hand sanitizer when there is a perfectly functioning sink with soap just yards away.  Are you kidding me?  Why?  The soap and water are being offered to you free of charge.  The hand sanitizer you had to buy.  On top of that, it’s another one of those blasted plastic bottles.  (Even those of you who think you are recycling your water bottles, they’re actually being loaded on barges and shipped to a landfill in China, by the way.) The salient point here is, we’re sanitizing our way back to pre-antibiotic days, folks.

People look at me like I’m a teensy, weensy bit nutty when I bring this up, but it’s simple math.  Hand sanitizers, disinfecting wipes and sprays all claim to kill 99% of bacteria.  Some even go so far as to make the claim of 99.9%… well, color me impressed.  There’s just one problem, the 1% or the .1% left behind.  (That’s if the product actually works as it says it does, most of them do not.)  Let’s take the rosier, cherubs and rainbow-farting-unicorns scenario, shall we, and say the disinfectant knocks out 99.9% of the bacteria.  So, of one thousand organisms, one will survive your cleansing efforts.  The one that’s survived has some sort of a genetic difference to it which makes it resistant to our arsenal of hand sanitizers.  It’s going to reproduce, because that is simply what bacteria do, and all of its progeny will be likewise tougher to kill.  Remember, bacteria reproduce exponentially, so it goes pretty quickly.  Our cleaning efforts simply build a better bacteria.

For years a few voices of reason have been trying rein in this behavior, thus far, to no avail, I might add.  In 2007 Tufts University, in conjunction with several other well-respected establishments, expounded upon previous studies, some dating back as far as 1980, supporting the use of soap and water over antibacterial products.  (To view this paper, click here.)  Antibacterial products do not work as well as advertised and even if they did the bacteria they leave behind is that which is good at surviving- think of it as the cockroach of the bacterial world.  Soap and warm water works better, guys, I promise, and it doesn’t breed a more resistant bug.

Sadly, hand sanitizer is the least of our problems.  The biggest culprits of spreading antibiotic resistance are misuse and overuse of antibiotics, both in and out of the field of medicine.  For instance, we all know the patient or often, the parent of the patient, who simply insists on a prescription for antibiotics, “just to be on the safe side”. Or you’ll hear someone say they’re going to the doctor, “to get some antibiotics” as though if they don’t get the prescription the physician hasn’t done his or her job.  Part of a doctor’s job isn’t just this illness; it’s your overall health and well-being.  Antibiotics you don’t need do not contribute to your long-term health or, as we’re seeing with the super bugs, society’s health as a whole.  For a great, plain terms explanation read this quick article from the Mayo Clinic.   Don’t try to insist or bully your doctor into a prescription if they think there’s another way to deal with your condition.  American doctors are finally starting to adopt the Europeans’ “wait and see” approach.  It’s worked in other countries for years.  Basically, if it is a virus your body will usually begin to get better on its own as your immune system revs into action.  If you don’t get better, your doctor can call in the prescription at that point.

One third of antibiotic prescriptions in the United States are for the common cold.  The common cold is caused by one of over two hundred viruses, usually a variant of the Rhino virus.  Antibiotics work against bacteria, hence the name, and are useless against viruses.  Actually, they can be worse than useless, as they’ll wipe out all the local flora and fauna a person needs in their body.  By this I mean that in all of us are lots of good strains of bacteria that significantly contribute to our daily well-being.  Send an unnecessary antibiotic through your system and you are actually more vulnerable to a harmful bacterial intrusion.  (Side bar, this is why after a course of antibiotics some doctors recommend eating foods like yogurt, to help bulk up the “good” bacteria again.)

Another abuse of antibiotics is not finishing your prescribed dose.  You’ve got a Strep infection, you start your meds, you start to feel better so you stop taking the drugs.  Bad idea.  You stand a very good chance that by not finishing the treatment you’ve killed off the more vulnerable organisms, but you’ve left the more resistant ones to repopulate once more.  Ever have an infection that kept coming back?  Finish the medicine the first time, that’s all I’m saying.

It’s not just human abuses that are contributing to the new Legion of Doom-esque bacteria.  (Does anyone else suddenly really miss Saturday mornings with the Super Friends versus the nefarious Legion of Doom?)  In the United States the beef, poultry and pork industries routinely use copious amounts of antibiotics for non-medical situations.  Antibiotics are used in the healthy animals’ feed to promote growth and as a “just in case” to ward off disease.  Due to the large doses these antibiotics are excreted in the animals’ waste.  From there the drugs make their way into the soil,  the local water systems and, of course, their presence in the animals’ flesh means they are worked into our food chain as well. (Another great argument for organic and small farm options.)   The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that at this time 70% of our current selection of antibiotic drugs is employed in the meat industry on healthy animals.  That’s 70% of our treatment options in this field being rendered less and less effective for actual sick animals and humans.  More illuminating (read frightening) is that in January of 2011 the Food & Drug Administration found that 80% of the total antibiotics produced in the US went to the farm industry.  That, my friends, is a whole lotta’ drugs.

I think “drugs” is the operative word here.  Antibiotics tend to be thought of as such a good and miraculous thing, and they are, don’t get me wrong, that there is a tendency to forget what they actually are.  They are medicine, not Jelly Bellies.  Like any medicine they should be treated with respect.  They should not be overused, nor should we think we know better than our physicians.  These drugs certainly have an important place in our health care, but, as with all things, moderation is the key here.

Lecture over, gripe done, putting away my soap box now.

Hmmm, of course, we still have all this plastic to deal with.

A nightmare of our own creation, big, bad bacteria- a modern day Legion of Doom.

“Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.” – Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens)