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Getting To Know Germs and Hand Sanitizers

should-kids-use-hand-sanitizersA ten year old girl asks her mother, “ why does mom insist that I take my hand sanitizer keychain with me wherever i go?, it’s really drying out my hands.” The response was, “ to keep you protected from germs.” She replied, “ What are germs?”

The girl in this story is my daughter, Tammy. In order to give a satisfactory and knowledgeable answer I decided to research the subject of germs, the origin of the germ theory and the advantages and disadvantages of hand sanitizers.

What is the Germ Theory?

So where do germs come fromAccording to Biology Wise, germs are microorganisms that cause certain diseases. For example, there is a specific set of microbes that invade our bodies and causes us to come down with the flu.

During the 1800’s the general belief was that life could originate spontaneously from non-living objects. This was called the theory of Spontaneous Generation. This theory claimed that rotting materials could produce live organisms. The recipe for mice stated that a full grown mouse can be created from rotting wheat and an old rag in 21 days. Challenging this theory (which today even to a child Tammy’s age would sound ridiculous) was the start of the formulation of the germ theory.

The three pioneers in the germ theory were, Louis Pasteur, Joseph Lister, and Robert Koch.  Koch worked with Pasteur on Anthrax disease in sheep and rabies vaccine. Here are some germ facts that became famed dichotomization labels in today’s retail markets. Pasteurization got its name from Louis Pasteur.  Listerine mouthwash got its name from Joseph Lister who is known as the inventor of antiseptic surgical methodologies.

Louis Pasteur, had such a fear of germs that he would never shake hands with anyone including kings and queens. He performed a series of experiments involving boiling water, broths and other liquids by exposing them to air. He showed the presence of microorganisms in the air. One of his famous experiments involved placing liquid broth in two separate swan neck flasks. He boiled the broth in both and then broke the neck of the second flask which became cloudy which demonstrated microbial growth. The broth in the first flask was protected because the air/dust particles became trapped in the swan neck and couldn’t touch the broth therefore remaining clear. This experiment proved that germs in the air existed and disproved unequivocally the Spontaneous Generation theory. Boiled water will remain sterile until exposed to air. As you can see exposing the broth to air caused microbes to grow. Any child can see this easily in everyday foods from moldy bread to pickles  which are called good bacteria or microbiotics. Practically speaking, Germ theory enthusiasts needed to inform the public not only that germs caused diseases but the method that germs are spread from one person to another. 

The revolutionary theory of germs affected the sterility of hospital environments and instruments as well as simple actions as doctors and nurses washing their hands before touching or operating on patients. It would seem crystal clear that there should be very little problems with germs in hospitals today.

An article titled, Are Hospitals Spreading Germs to Patients states: “many of the hospitals do not clean the rooms between patient admissions”. Chicago Tribune reporter, Michael J. Berens investigated this story for a year and half. He found that the germs of the last patient were not disinfected. To properly disinfect hospital furniture and bathroom fixtures, disinfectant must stay on the affected areas at least five to ten minutes to be worthwhile. He also found out that only 50% of the doctors and nurses washed their hands. He said that some doctors do not wash their hands before surgery because they are wearing gloves. They believe that since they are wearing gloves its not necessary to wash their hands, however when they put on the gloves they are using dirty hands contaminating the gloves. His research revealed that 75% of all hospitals were cited for sanitary infractions. Berens found that more than 100,000 deaths in the year 2000 were attributed to infections caught by patients in US hospitals. The report also indicated that three – quarters of those deaths could have been prevented.

Hopefully, since this report was published the hospitals have improved their sanitary conditions. It would be a pity to go back one hundred years when only the poor would go to hospitals to have their babies. In those times, the preferred and safer method was to call the doctor or midwife to the home. We will certainly acknowledge that the introduction of hand sanitizers to hospitals in this century has curbed the introduction of certain bacteria to hospital patients but how effective and necessary are they out of the hospital.

Besides hospitals, today hand sanitizers can be found in the gym, in the classroom, entrances to nursing homes, public washrooms, on my personal belt holster, and on my daughter’s key chain. I was an voracious user of hand sanitizers as well until I researched this article.

Hand sanitizers are a great alternative when no soap and water are available according to CanadianLiving .com. For example, when children finish playing in the park, mothers reach into their purses for the hand sanitizers to rub on the children’s hands in order to kill any germs that have been transferred via the playground equipment. Most hand sanitizers contain either alcohol (ethyl , ethanol, or isopropanol) or triclosan.

Here are some facts both positive and negative about hand sanitizers.

1) As stated above sanitizers have varied ingredients. If the alcohol content is less than 60% it will not be effective.

2) If there is bloodborne pathogens or regulated medical waste on the hands it must be washed away with soap and water first or the sanitizer will be ineffective.

3) Some sanitizers contain moisturizer to minimize dryness and some don’t, causing dryness and irritation.

4) You must use enough of the product for to be effective. If the gel evaporates in less than 15 seconds you have not used enough.

5) “Triclosan” is a powerful antibacterial agent. Dr. Stuart Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine, says that we must save antibiotics from themselves. Now we are being told that by focusing on destroying bacteria we will eventually make it resistant and create a super bacteria that could not be eradicated. There is no way to get around the fact that drug – resistant bacteria now exist.

6) In the NYC subway system for example, a winter flu virus can last on railings for up to 24 hours. It is very easy for a flu sufferer to transfer the virus to another subway rider. In this context, the use of an alcohol based sanitizer can prevent the spread of the flu. However, the majority of the of the people contract the flu and other viruses by inhaling drops from the air rather than touching infected surfaces.

7) Triclosan has been the subject of criticism concerning potential health risks and microbial resistance. In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration ( FDA) issued a notice about antibacterial/antiseptic soaps and body washes with Triclosan. They did not however, include hand sanitizers in this rule. By the way the rule is not accepted as of yet since the FDA as of yet does not have enough evidence to change or restrict the use of products that contain triclosan.

Using a triclosan based sanitizer once or twice a day is fine but excessive use might lead to some complications like negatively affecting your immune system.

8) How does BPA (Bisphenol A ) connect to sanitizers? BPA can cause hormone disorders and other disturbances to the endocrine system. A study from the University of Missouri, states that touching something with BPA right after using a hand sanitizer is dangerous. This is because the BPA can be absorbed through your skin and even worse a thin layer of BPA will remain on your skin even after being absorbed. For example, you first use a sanitizer than you touch a BPA product and then eat something. you would be consuming a bit of this harmful BTA substance with every bite you take.

In conclusion, The CDC (The Center for Disease Control) still advises using sanitizer in professional scenarios. Overuse can cause eczema or other skin conditions. Dr. Bordone discourages touching eyes, mouth or nose. She emphasizes the importance of general washing of the hands prior to eating because of the direct ingestion into the body and transferring of the germs. So all the evidence is not in yet either way.

I tell my daughter that when she thinks someone might be sick or she sees someone sneeze on something she touches, she should use her sanitizer. Otherwise when she goes to the playground and gets dirty i will advise her to go and wash her hands with soap and water. In other words not to use her hand sanitizer excessively.

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