The sensation over sanitization

Questioning the paranoia surrounding the over-use of hand sanitizers to guard against germs

Ivan Mackeen, business manager of Physical Plant Services, decided to have 20 Purrell hand sanitizer dispensers installed around campus.
Ivan Mackeen, business manager of Physical Plant Services, decided to have 20 Purrell hand sanitizer dispensers installed around campus.

As the concern for public health has become more common, so has the use of antibacterial hand sanitizers. A trip to the drugstore will give you a handful of brands from the well-known Purell, to Life Brand and even some organic, all-natural products.

During the avian flu scare two years ago Ivan Mackeen, business manager of Physical and Plant Services, decided to have Purell hand sanitizer dispensers installed around campus.

Mackeen said Physical and Plant Services have placed 20 dispensers around campus in mainly public places such as computer labs and areas with a lot of human traffic.

He said Residence Health and Safety have installed several more in places like dining halls and residence buildings.

Although the Purell advertisement states its product kills 99.9 per cent of most common germs, Dr. Nancy Martin, a bacteriologist here at Queen’s, said that’s not the issue.

“Most of the hand sanitizers on the market will kill the number of organisms that specify they’re used properly,” she said. “In a medical care setting, when you have a health care practitioner who is moving from patient to patient, they’re useful, especially when some patients may have an out of the ordinary bacterial or viral infection.”

Martin said she doesn’t use hand sanitizer every day.

“One of the aspects of being in the field of microbiology is that you are desensitized to the potential for infection,” she said. “You recognize that there are huge amounts of bacteria and viruses in the environment, and they’re not doing anything to us most of the time.”

Some scientists are suggesting hand sanitizers are the cause of the recent rise of ‘superbugs’ in hospitals.

Superbugs are bacteria resistant to several commonly used antibiotics, Martin said. They are difficult to treat, in part because the types of remaining, effective drugs and the dosages required to stop infection can be hard for patients who are quite ill to tolerate.

Just last week, Martin said Queen’s published a press release on the subject but she said the over-use of hand sanitizers is probably not to blame.

“There’s some published literature that is worrying about antibiotic resistant bacteria arising,” she said. “If you’re using hand sanitizers all the time you might be selecting for resistant organisms, but the data I’m aware of has not conclusively shown that that has happened in association with hand sanitizers, per se.”

Martin said superbugs come from hospital settings, when people who are given antibiotics go off them early for one reason or another and some of the bacteria survive.

“These strains of bacteria are often endemic within the hospital setting, so if you’re there, you can get them,” she said. “That’s partly why there is some controversy about the use of hand sanitizers at the entrance of the hospital.”

Martin said although nothing has been shown conclusively, hand sanitizers can still be useful.

“Hand sanitizers are effective disinfectants and work as an infection control measure to prevent bacterial dissemination,” she said.

Despite this, Martin said there’s also controversy surrounding the use of chemicals like Triclosan in hand sanitizers. Triclosan has been linked with hormone disruptions and the formation of chloroform gas when mixed with the chlorine in tap water.

“This is probably not a huge problem unless you eat the stuff, because you have a fairly dense layer of dense cells on your hands and your skin that protects you against most things penetrating,” she said. “The problem is that no one knows how much of these things are necessary to get into the bloodstream before you have a problem.”

Martin said bacteria is just something we have to live with and that we have lived with it for millions of years.

“People seem to be really paranoid about bacteria and viruses that they’ve lived with all their lives,” she said. “It becomes a little unrealistic to be always using hand sanitizers. You can sanitize your hands, and 20 minutes later they’re going to be coated again.”

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