Those little bottles of anti-bacterial soap that people clip on to their purses and backpacks in recent years seem to have spread like a virus. And now, it turns out, this product may not even work and — worse yet — might actually be dangerous.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that anti-bacterial soap offers no benefits over regular hand soap. Warm water and ordinary soap, that’s probably all you need.
Shockingly, the FDA also declared that anti-bacterial soap products containing any of 19 antibacterial ingredients, especially triclosan and triclocarbon, must be removed from shelves within a year because of concerns about the safety of these substances. Link to the FDA’s announcement.
Those in the professional infection-control community have long questioned the need for fancy anti-bacterial soaps. Years ago, I handled a case against a major area hospital involving allegations that surgical patients were suffering complications of post-operative infection because of poor hand-washing practices on the part of the surgical staff. I recall the hospital’s infection control officer saying what the FDA has finally declared about most consumer-grade anti-bacterial soaps. The key was rubbing the hands together vigorously under water, with or without regular soap, he explained almost ten years ago.
So why did it take the FDA so long to get around to telling us these products don’t work? And that they contain chemicals to which we should not be exposing ourselves and our children?
The likeliest answer is that Congress has not been a big fan of regulatory agencies like FDA, despite the crucial role that the agency plays in protecting consumers from unsafe drugs, cosmetics, and food. This means that FDA is chronically underfunded, given the broad scope of its regulatory responsibilities.
Especially in the heat of a political season, the pro-business rhetoric becomes even more strident. Do we favor a truly free-market system, where we let business do what business does, free from the shackles and costs of government regulation? Or do we care about making sure that business does not put profits over consumer safety and well-being?
If not government regulation, especially regulation and enforcement designed to improve consumer-safety, then how about these questions:
Did the companies making and marketing these products know that they didn’t work? Did they know that the chemicals in these products could be dangerous to the health of consumers, including children?
If these companies did know that their soaps and other anti-bacterial products didn’t work and that, in fact, they were probably unsafe, should they be held accountable?
I will answer that last one: Yes.