Anti-Microbial Treatments - Benefit or Risk?

At Chusid Associates, our first obligation is to stewardship of the environment. With that in mind, we are concerned about the possible hazard posed by "antimicrobial" treatments on building products. The following are excerpts from market research we conducted several years ago:

There is worldwide concern in the increasing use of antimicrobial-treated products. This trend is most apparent in consumer goods. In architecture, antimicrobial treatments are offered for door handles, toilet seats, HVAC equipment, countertops and some other products. Companies may feel the need to compete by adding these products to their lines but are these actually good products or could they be backfiring, resulting in severe health concerns?
U.S. pesticide regulations severely limit health-related claims that can be made about the use of an antimicrobial treatment. Under US regulations, a manufacturer can claim that an antimicrobial makes surfaces easier to clean and reduces the potential for odor. It cannot say, however, that it will reduce the spread of infections. Since many building materials are already easy to clean and do not promote odors, the benefits of an antimicrobial treatment are based on the public’s fear of “germs” and its faith in aggressive hygiene. As a point of reference, consider that millions of dollars are spent in the U.S. every year on chemicals to make toilet bowls clean enough to drink from, even though no one drinks from them.

European regulations appear to be more lenient. I am aware that of an international manufacturer that says, on its EU website, that their antimicrobial-treated products provide "antibacterial protection that helps fight the growth of micro-organisms such as mold and harmful bacteria such as E.Coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Staphlococcus and the MRSA superbug." However, they do not give data saying how effective the surfacing is against these microbes, and this type of language is absent from their US site.

There is growing concern that long term and widespread use of antimicrobials may breed antimicrobial-resistant microbes and pose an even greater danger. Some antimicrobials weaken organisms but allow resistant populations to survive and reproduce.

Market segments most likely to be interested in antimicrobial treatments include residential and healthcare. In the residential market, interest in an antimicrobial product is driven by a consumer’s generalized sense of concern for “giving their family the best protection there is”. Few consumers will be aware of concerns about the breeding of pesticide-resistant microbes.

In the specification-driven healthcare sector, the keys are regulatory approval, serviceability, demonstrated protection against contamination and the spread of disease, and cost.

It would be logical for the food service industry to be interested in antimicrobial treatments. We believe, however, that it will be years before that industry moves beyond the NSF requirement as its standard of care.

Ultimate acceptance of an antimicrobial product is dependent upon being able to demonstrate clear mission-specific benefits (lower infection rates or reduce housekeeping costs) due to the use of the treatment. Ultimately, a record of proven benefits to be derived from antimicrobials may lead to regulatory requirements or industry best practices requiring antimicrobial surfaces. The potential this type of research seems remote at present given 1) most health care construction is regulated by state agencies and could possibly require an expensive and time-consuming process of getting on the approved products list of these regulators as well as selling to facility managers and design professionals, and 2) current U.S. laws that demand costly proof and registration before claiming health-related benefits. More, the health care sector will be sensitive to concerns about breeding of pesticide-resistant microbes.

In many cases, a manufacturer's move to add an antimicrobial appears to be driven more by promotional considerations than by gains in product performance. As the first in category to introduce this product, a manufacturer would have an opportunity to get excellent press and salesmen have a new feature to discuss.

In our limited discussions with architects and other design professionals, there was limited awareness of antimicrobial treatments. Most respondents expressed interest but felt unable to make any reasonable assessments about the value of antimicrobial because of the lack of meaningful technical data presented. Healthcare architects were generally of the opinion that an antimicrobial treatment would not negate the need for stringent cleaning and sterilization, and thus were skeptical about the benefit of antimicrobials without data substantiating performance benefits.

We found no credible, independent source that recommended antimicrobial treatments as a prudent measure to improve health or housekeeping concerns.

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