Monday, April 19, 2010

Three Cheers for Bacteria

After I read that the FDA is investigating the safety of the antibacterial agent triclosan, a chemical widely used in toothpastes, cosmetics, soaps, and plastics, we did a quick audit of some of these products in our house. Triclosan might affect hormone function and contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Unfortunately, we have plenty of triclosan at home. Sitting on the bathroom sink, a tube of Colgate Total (Active ingredient: 0.30 % triclosan); in the broom closet, a container of Target's antibacterial hand soap (Active ingredient: triclosan 0.115%). I'll be phasing those out of our household post haste, and looking for triclosan-free alternatives. I'm glad to make the switch, because bacteria are my favorite microorganisms.

Over the past year, "bad" bacteria have caused plenty of havoc in my family, from sinus infections to scarlet fever (which happened, most ironically, just after we had watched a movie version of The Velveteen Rabbit, in which scarlet fever strikes the main character). It is true that problems such as bacterial meningitis and  MRSA infections have hurt or killed far too many people, and I will happily sing the praises of both antibiotics (used judiciously and correctly) and vaccines (such as the tetanus, pertussis, and Hib vaccines) to prevent dangerous bacterial infections.

But bacteria have an important role in biology, and I have no desire to wipe out more bacteria than medically necessary. Prokaryotic bacteria have been around for billions (billions!) of years, one of the oldest and simplest microorganisms - just one cell big, with no nucleus. Bacteria in our digestive tract help us digest our food and make a vitamin that helps our blood clot. Bacteria in the reproductive tract destroy fungi that can cause infections. And many antibiotics, of course, are made from bacteria.

Outside our bodies, bacteria keep soil healthy and break down dead plants. We use bacteria to make yogurt and cheese and to process sewage. Bacteria are wily and adaptable, and can even survive in the Antarctic's Lake Vostok.

Although bacterial problems such as salmonella outbreaks in the food supply make the news more often, far more types of bacteria are helpful than harmful to humans. Why do these fascinating organisms get such a bad rap (hey, go pick on viruses!)? Our obsession with eliminating the bacteria around us creates its own problems, such as questionable ingredients in household products and antibiotic resistance. I think it's time to show bacteria a little more respect - maybe a Bacteria Appreciation Week?