If one of your resolutions for 2014 was to use more antimicrobial soap, your plans might be all washed up.
According to the New York Times, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced on December 16 that it is giving soap manufacturers one year to demonstrate that their antibacterial chemicals (a) are more effective than ordinary soap and water and (b) do more good than harm. Soaps that fail must be reformulated, relabeled, removed from the market or dipped in lead paint and used in a cultural exchange with China.
For one thing, regulators think consumers have been lulled into a false sense of security, and that the soaps may actually promote drug-resistant strains of bacteria. Restaurant owners are already printing up bathroom signs that dictate, “All employees must body slam mutant bacteria before returning to work. May God have mercy on your soul.”
Don’t view this as an abrupt development. Although the order was issued this month, the preliminary version was drafted (I kid thee not) in the late 70s! This may explain references such as “Frampton Comes Alive - And So Does The Drug-Resistant Microbe.”
Granted, in 2005 the FDA did at least issue a SUGGESTION that the industry study the situation and forward the data to the feds. This was assertiveness paralleling the lofty heights of “Um, you wouldn’t want to go to the malt shop with me after school, would you? I didn’t think so. Don’t hit me.”
The FDA has a reputation for foot-dragging and lollygagging. Cutting-edge statements issued in 2012 included “splinters from covered wagons may expose you to New World pathogens” and “Eating magic beans can be hazardous to your health.”
On the other hand, 2013 has seen a more activist FDA - phasing out the use of antibiotics in animals raised for meat and all but banning trans fats in prepared foods. If the tough-guy act with the soap companies sticks, future endeavors include helmets for Mexican jumping beans and a less depressing name for tongue depressors.
Some 2,000 soaps (and countless unrelated products far from the world of personal hygiene) are now marketed as “antimicrobial.” It’s all part of the grand tradition of jumping on a bandwagon. The history of hand washing is littered with passing fads such as “solid state soap,” “transistor soap,” “8-track soap,” “rack-and-pinion soap” and “Affordable Health Care soap.”
Industry leaders are flabbergasted that the feds are ignoring years of cooperation. Spokesmen dismiss fears of chemicals contaminating ground water and scrambling human hormone levels the same way they affect lab animals. Besides, they have bigger fish to fry. One executive is campaigning against Barbie dolls because of their negative impact on his three-year-old granddaughter. No, it’s not Barbie’s unrealistic measurements; it’s that her mouth is too tiny for his granddaughter to successfully breast-feed her.
My wife, the college biology teacher, is a longtime member of the American Society for Microbiology and shared with me a lot of insight from her days in the cosmetics industry. But she ultimately has a hard time deciding whom to root for in the “he said, she said” battle between Big Government and Big Business. Most consumers just hope that the pay-per-view people securely lock the cage and use an antiseptic wipe before throwing away the key.
Danny welcomes reader e-mail responses at firstname.lastname@example.org and visits to his Facebook fan page “Tyree’s Tyrades”.