Living Green: Weird but true germ facts

Blue Bell made national news in April 2015 when a listeria outbreak led them to recall all of their ice cream products. Meanwhile. people also got nasty food poisoning—bacterial illness—from a church picnic in Ohio, a sushi restaurant in California and a winery in Arizona.

Thank goodness for powerful antibiotics! But if we’re going to keep antibiotics working, it’s worth giving a little shout-out to the freakishly adaptive nature of bacteria. Here’s why we have to use antibiotics with care:

  • Bacteria reproduce incredibly fast. Some bacteria, like e. coli, can double in 20 minutes. That means not only rapid infestation, but also rapid evolution: when warm and well fed, e. coli can evolve through ten generations in a single afternoon.
  • Bacteria share their powers. These critters can pass genetic mutations not only to their offspring, but to their friends and family. That’s like you getting a genetic mutation from your pet.
  • Bacteria are becoming super-bugs. When a few bacteria learn to resist antibiotics, evolve quickly, and share their secrets with friends and family, we have more difficult strains of illness to treat. We’re seeing antibiotic resistance in “food poisoning” campylobacter and salmonella as well as staph, strep and 14 other diseases.

So: It kind of makes you want to reach for the bleach and antibacterials, right? But wait!

There are things you can do to fight bacteria and “super-bugs”—but antibacterial cleaning supplies might be doing more harm than good.

Here’s what you can do:

Use antibiotics wisely.

You know the old saying: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” That really applies to bacteria. If you don’t use antibiotics as prescribed, you might be letting the strong ones live, and pass their strength along to others.

Avoid food produced with antibiotics.

Far more antibiotics are sold for use with livestock than with humans. It’s not all about sick animals—the drugs are added to food or water to help animals grow faster and ward off disease. These regular low doses are just enough to allow resistant bacteria to survive in the animals (and in their meat). The FDA started a voluntary process a few years ago to get makers of antibiotics to stop selling them for use on healthy animals by 2016. But to be certain, you can choose antibiotic-free products. When you buy organic meat and dairy, you are choosing products made without antibiotics.

Skip the antibacterials.

Look at your toothpaste, deodorant, hand soap and dish soap labels: do they contain triclosan or triclocarban? These synthetic chemicals were first used to kill germs in hospitals, but have since been added to a lot of home products. They don’t seem to work in reducing illness at home—but they do harm aquatic life when they go down the drain, and there’s some evidence they contribute to antibiotic resistance. Using regular soap is an effective way to kill germs. Hand sanitizers are not a bad alternative if you can’t wash hands; the alcohol-based products don’t contain triclosan.

Use safer disinfectants.

After handling raw meat, it’s important to kill germs—but you don’t need harsh chemicals that can harm your health or pollute our waterways. A good household germ killer is hydrogen peroxide—the brown bottle that comes in the health care aisle. You can attach a spray top to the brown bottle and spray it directly on countertops, cutting boards and bathroom surfaces after you’ve wiped them clean. Let the peroxide sit for ten minutes to effectively disinfect. Caution: it will bleach clothing! Another caution: it must remain in the brown bottle to work. Hydrogen peroxide breaks down into water when exposed to light.

Why does OEC care about antibiotics?

OEC works at the intersection of health and the environment. We encourage practices that support human health and also ensure clean air and water, healthy food and a healthy landscape. By using antibiotics carefully, we can reduce pollution in our food and water from both off-target antibiotics and antibacterial chemicals.

This Living Green blog was made possible with generous support from Organic Valley.

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3 Replies to "Living Green: Weird but true germ facts"

  • Margaret Puckette
    April 29, 2015 (11:59 pm)

    You forgot to mention boiling or using steam cleaners. Steam cleaning is not just for floors and carpets. Some steam cleaning appliances are inexpensive and small and easy to use every day.

    There’s another really important thing to mention that may need another article to effectively cover: our fabulous immune system. What about ways to support and improve our immunity? Our immune system can be strengthened, and it can learn to recognize and destroy bacteria, even as the germs evolve. Too clean an environment doesn’t give our immune system the chance. There is a balance.

    • Jen Coleman
      April 30, 2015 (4:11 pm)

      Really great suggestion, Margaret! Thank you. In fact, I am in Jackson County this week talking to Master Recyclers groups about household hazardous waste, and a discussion arose about the connections between our environmental choices and a healthy immune system. I will take up your challenge and do my best to do a future Living Green article on our fabulous immune system!

  • emmer
    April 30, 2015 (9:24 pm)

    additionally, altering the pH of the surface can kill many bacteria. like people, they have a range of pH values they can live within. so, spraying your counter with vinegar and letting it dry naturally will go a long way towards reducing the bacterial population to tolerable levels.