Below is one part of a series of white papers based on our Conversation Series: New Perspectives on Health and Well-Being where we discussed a range of mitigation strategies with our community of engineers, architects, specialists, and industry professionals. We break down all the latest and greatest (and not so great) methods of disease control through engineering, design, and building maintenance strategies by their effectiveness and considerations for sustainability.
Human and Environmental Impacts
Antimicrobials have been shown to be dangerous to people. Unfortunately, the chemicals are found in a wide array of products, as seen in Figure 1. When in contact with the products, people absorb the antimicrobials through skin contact and contaminated dust. Furthermore, babies are exposed to the chemicals as early as in-utero development and while breastfeeding. About ¾ of breastmilk in America has tested positive for containing triclosan, a known hormone disruptor associated with antibiotic resistance, allergen sensitivity, and developmental and reproductive effects. Other studies show effects to beneficial gut bacteria, asthma, and dermatitis. While the chemicals are often introduced with hopes of lowering infection rates, the chemicals may actually be weakening our responses to COVID-19. In addition to human concerns, antimicrobials have contaminated the environment. The products ultimately enter the environment when washed down the drain or thrown away where they can bioaccumulate in the food chain. Wastewater treatment plants are unable to break down many antimicrobials, so the compounds remain in the waste product which can end up in agricultural soil. While the impact of antimicrobials on the environment once released is not widely known, some studies suggest triclosan, triclocarban, quats, and nanosilver are toxic to marine life.
Why are antimicrobials still being used?
People perceive the chemicals to be beneficial for eliminating germs. However, no measurable benefits have been found in comparison to regular soap and water. There is no proof of antimicrobials creating a healthier space, and this should be the goal of building designers and owners. On the contrary, using antimicrobials has been shown to increase antibiotic resistance.
Sustainability Impacts of mitigation efforts
Tips for creating antimicrobial-free spaces
Request antimicrobial-free materials or request the chemicals be removed, do not use common antimicrobials including triclosan and triclocarban, design for “no-touch” surfaces, and use non-porous materials for surfaces. All in all, avoid using antimicrobials when possible. Using a safer and/or natural alternative can replace certain chemicals. For example, copper and cork are both naturally antimicrobial and can be used in a number of placements, but have limitations to their uses. Additionally, product labeling and transparency can lead to more confidence in product safety. Further, evaluating the safety of antimicrobials and understanding their product life cycle is essential. Since antimicrobials are found in so many products, it can be difficult to find safe products. The use of antimicrobials contribute to producing “superbugs” or viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites that are resistant to antimicrobials (AMR).
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Antimicrobials are naturally-occurring and fabricated chemicals added to common products with the goal of killing microbes and slowing down the spread of infections. Antimicrobial products can be sectioned to two main categories: pesticides and drugs/antiseptics. Pesticides are the products used on inanimate surfaces, like bathroom surface cleaning wipes used on bathroom vanities. Drugs and antiseptics are used in or on living things, such as hand sanitizer. The pesticide category of products are regulated by the EPA while drugs and antiseptics are regulated by the FDA. The Green Science Policy Institute delineates multiple harmful chemicals into six classes of chemicals of concern. Antimicrobials are considered as one of the six classes. Other chemicals classes include highly fluorinated, flame retardants, bisphenols & phthalates, some solvents, and certain metals. In the midst of COVID-19, chemicals including antimicrobials have seen an increase in use.
Antimicrobial chemicals include triclosan, triclocarban, halogenated aromatics, nanosilver, and quaternary ammonium compounds (quats).
Antibiotic or Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other parasites are able to withstand the products designed to kill them. AMR can be a result of the misuse and overuse of antibiotics and antimicrobials.
Figure 1: Examples of common products containing antimicrobials. (Source: sixclasses.org)
[…] However, we know that the antimicrobial additives in products aren’t proven to be helpful in preventing the spreading of virus and bacteria and some of them are harmful to the indoor environment. Their function is to protect the material/product itself.
Figure 2: This chart identifies strategies, calls out sustainability factors and ranks the efficacy of COVID-19 / SARS-CoV2 mitigation and keys in a color and abbreviation linking to the larger, compiled strategy chart.
Figure 3: This image is a key, specifying the location of each solution on the compiled strategies chart.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals weaken us in our COVID-19 battle: Linda S. Birnbaum, Jerrold J. Heindel
While the chemicals are often introduced with hopes of lowering infection rates, the chemicals may actually be weakening our responses to COVID-19
The Florence Statement on Triclosan and Triclocarban
A document discussing the hazards and lack of benefit of antimicrobials. Over 200 scientists have supported the claims.
Health Product Declaration Collaborative
The Health Product Declaration Collaborative has established an Antimicrobials and Cleaning Chemicals Working Group in response to COVID-19 and the increase of chemicals.
HPDC Convenes Antimicrobials and Cleaning Chemicals Working Group
Red List (Living Future)
The International Living Future Institute lists antimicrobials on “The Red List” along with other harmful products.
Six Classes of Chemicals, informational videos
Understanding Antimicrobial Ingredients in Building Materials
There is no proof of antimicrobials creating a healthier space.
This is great. I’m glad to see that Built Environment Plus is tackling this important topic. An additional resource you may want your members to be aware of is the Joint Statement on Antimicrobials in Building Products. It is authored by a number of the organizations whose resources you have already linked to (HPDC, ILFI, HBN, GSP, and Perkins & Will), but includes additional signatories such as Health Care Without Harm, academic researchers working in green chemistry, and numerous others devoted to green building. The link is hosted on mindful MATERIALS here https://www.mindfulmaterials.com/antimicrobials-letter