New warnings - and new products - feed our fears about chemicals, microbes and dirt. Are we worrying too much?

Wednesday, June 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

For those who think a clean apple is one we've rubbed against our blue-jean shorts, Barbara Gollman offers this (unappetizing) food for thought: wax.

"To me, that's the most disturbing thing," says the Dallas spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. "I think, what's trapped under that wax?"

Makes you want to whip out the sandpaper and start sanding the daylights out of that skin. Or at least use soap and water. Or just water. Or perhaps, in our seemingly endless crusade for a germ-free world, the latest weapons: Procter & Gamble's Fit Fruit & Vegetable Wash ("Fit" for short) and another contaminant remover called Next Generation Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Wash.

They join a list of products designed to rid our worlds of the much maligned five-letter word: GERMS.

In the past four years, more than 700 new products have been released that contain antibacterial ingredients. Rare is the hand soap or dishwashing liquid that doesn't stress its antibacterial-ness. Mr. Clean sells antibacterial wipes. Pine-Sol adds the tag to its product label, too. Tide With Bleach boasts of killing "99.9 percent of bacteria."

A catalog sells sanitary coverings for questionably clean hotel linens. Microban Products Company advertises that its "built-in protection" fights bacteria, mildew and mold on carpet, bedding, socks, humidifiers, undies. It recently announced a new antibacterial process for towels.

On the one hand, who can blame us for worrying? Seems every time we sneeze, wipe chicken juice off the counter or belly up to a salad bar there's more health-threatening news. About germ-laden sponges, or E. coli. About flesh-eating bacteria, or playground equipment awash in bodily fluids. About women's bathrooms beating out men's in a which-has-more-germs study.

But on the other hand . . . are we getting a little carried away?

Yes, says Dr. Maura Meade-Callahan, assistant professor of biology at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. "Obviously, in order to keep the household safe in general, you need to disinfect. But there is a possibility of going overboard."

No, says Ms. Gollman (especially where food is concerned). "I do feel like we're becoming much more cautious, but I think it's important that we are. I used to be the world's worst: 'I can handle a little bacteria.' But the more we see how prevalent foodborne illnesses are, the more that's making us cautious and encouraging others to be more cautious.

Yes, says Dr. Daniel Skiest, assistant professor of internal medicine in the infectious disease division at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. "The pathogens people are scared about are not acquired by common contact outside the hospital. It looks like some of the companies are making a lot of money based on irrational fears."

No, e-mails Lisa Holmes of Grapevine. After getting sick too many times while traveling on business, she has perfected her own germ-avoidance system.

"I bring the term 'clean freak' to a new level," Ms. Holmes writes. "I have invented a new term I call 'biophobe.'

"When I am introduced to someone and they take my hand, I am very careful not to touch any exposed skin on my body until I can wash my hands with soap and water. After I wash my hands, I grab the paper towel and dry. I then apply anti-bacterial cleaner on my hands. I get out of the bathroom by opening the door with my sleeve . . .

"Hotels are obstacles. The telephones are never cleaned by the maids, and this is quite evident by the smell of cologne on the receiver. I clean the receiver with Clorox (disinfecting wipes). Since I have them out, I run it along the lamps, remote control, the heater, door handles and bathroom fixtures. I never pick up a pen that is left in the room, as it may have been in someone's mouth."

Yes, says systems analyst Joe Schneider of Carrollton. "I just think it's become a little excessive. People probably look at me like I'm strange, but we'd go to the bowling alley and my son would fish out gum from under the pinball machine. 'OK, take it out of your mouth and give it to me.' I don't want him doing that, but he managed to survive. He's 4 and has only had two ear infections."

No, e-mails a reader from Perryton, Texas. "I use a washcloth to clean the countertops. I use it only once. Then I wash the cloth in the washing machine with bleach. I dry the countertops with paper towels, making sure I do not spread anything by using it too much. You could pick up something and spread it by multiple swaths with one towel."

So what's a consumer to do? Perhaps the first step is to calm down. Realize germs are part of life. Use common sense. And listen to those who study this sort of thing.

"People think germs are icky, but they're also beneficial and we couldn't live without them," Dr. Meade-Callahan says. "Our own immune systems don't know how to cope with what they've never seen before. If you try to eliminate everything, somewhere down the road you'll be exposed to it and your immune system won't know how to react and the illness will be a lot more serious."

One theory under investigation is that the squeaky-clean environment in which many kids grow up has contributed to the increase in childhood autoimmune diseases.

Says Dr. Rial Rolfe, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Texas Tech Medical Center: "Getting infections and developing immunity are part of childhood. Totally protecting children could actually backfire as they get older."

The potential problem, he says, is this: "If a micro-organism is exposed to antibacterial substances, it could develop resistance not only to that, but to other substances as well."

In other words, say someone had a middle ear infection. The doctor prescribes penicillin. But, Dr. Rolfe says, "It may not it be as therapeutically effective, because maybe the bacteria [that caused the infection] was exposed to an antibacterial and developed a resistance to not only the antibacterial but to penicillin as well."

One antibacterial product incorporated into plastics and fabrics is called triclosan. In studies, Dr. Meade-Callahan has found that it is no longer active after certain common bacteria grow on it.

Mr. Schneider of Carrollton has found fungus on his children's high chair and his dog's water bowl - both of which purport to contain antibacterial properties. And although fungus is not bacteria, the growth still strikes him as a bit odd.

"Anything can come along and colonize that surface," Dr. Meade-Callahan says. "I tell my students, 'You've got to let your kids eat dirt sometimes.' You have to be exposed to microbes for the immune system to recognize them as something that's not supposed to be there."

Antibacterial products, Dr. Skiest says, generally don't protect against such bacteria as E. coli. It's contracted by eating or drinking something - an undercooked hamburger, perhaps - that was contaminated.

"The cow was probably infected," he says. "Since the meat wasn't heated to the appropriate temperature, it didn't kill or inactivate the bacteria."

Using antibacterial products can create a false sense of security, says registered nurse Deborah Phillips.

"When you put an antimicrobial product into everyday things like a countertop, it's really unnecessary," says Ms. Phillips, infection control coordinator for Parkland Health and Hospital Systems. "Into tissue, too. That person who blows his nose still needs to wash his hands."

Which brings us around to quite possibly the most effective way to keep us healthy: hand washing. That alone can decrease the rate of foodborne illness by 50 percent, Ms. Gollman says.

"Most of diseases spread in households are because someone didn't wash their hands from going to the restroom to preparing food, or when they have a cold or other infection," Ms. Phillips says. "They have the germ on their hand and make contact with someone else in the family."

Well, surely, you might think, the soap to use should be antibacterial. Judging from the experts, not necessarily.

"You can use regular soap that creates a lather," Ms. Phillips says. "The most important part of hand washing is that it's done for 10 to 15 seconds and that there's friction because you're removing the bacteria from your hands. The friction causes handwashing to be effective."

Ms. Gollman uses only one antibacterial product: Purell, a waterless hand cleaner. When it comes to cleaning countertops, knives and cutting boards, she opts for a "very diluted" bleach solution in a spray bottle.

Dr. Skiest: "There are no antibacterial products in my house. Just common sense."

Dr. Meade-Callahan: "Just plain washing hands with warm water and soap, mechanically removing the dirt, can take care of 97 percent of the bacteria. When you add antibacterial products, it may take care of 99. But that 2 percent, at least to me, doesn't seem worth the risk of having resistance to other drugs build up in the population."

Dr. Rolfe doesn't use antibacterial soap either. For fruits and vegetables, he just uses water. So does Dr. Skiest. Ms. Gollman is hooked on Fit.

"It's instantaneous," she says. "I am very impressed with the amount of dirt and wax that it takes off fruits and vegetables . . . Your water will be so filthy if you've soaked them."

The American Dietetic Association recommends four steps to keeping food safe: Hand washing. Cooking foods at the proper temperature. Storing foods at the proper temperature. Keeping raw foods separate from those ready to eat.

The organization even recommends cleaning non-edible peels on produce. Ms. Gollman never used to clean cantaloupes. Then she read a story about a case where people became ill by eating them from a salad bar.

"When you cut through the rind, the juices leak out and wash the skin with juice," she says. "Then the knife goes back on the fruit, over and over again so it can infect with the germs on the rind."

Sometimes people tell her, "I'm a vegetarian. I don't have to worry about E. coli and hamburger." She tells them that deadly germs can also be found on fruits and vegetables. For example, one of the biggest national outbreaks of salmonella was caused by bad alfalfa sprouts.

"We probably should have been worried about this a long time ago," Ms. Gollman says. "Ten years ago, I was told, 'Nobody wants to hear about it.' I wanted to do my thesis on food safety, but my professor said it was a yucky subject."