Keeping Yourself and the Environment Healthy

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By Cat Aboudara, Events and Special Programs Manager

Published 10.18.12

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Being susty in San Francisco can sometimes involve a lot of time on the bus and an itch to wash germs off your hands on a regular basis to avoid getting the continuous cough that circulates.  I take comfort in hanging onto the metal rails on the bus as most metal ions have oxidation and antibacterial properties.  However, I do carry hand sanitizer too albeit not Purell.  After working at the California Academy of Sciences, I made the switch from Purell and anti-bacterial products to CleanWell after doing research with the Curator of Botany, Frank Almeda.

Docents and staff at the Academy often bring out reptiles for close encounters with guests at the museum.  They follow up these close encounters by offering antimicrobial soap to guests to clean their hands– not because the animals are slimy, but as a precaution against transmitting Salmonella bacteria from animals to people.

You've probably heard of this bacteria before, as an unpleasant bug that sometimes finds its way into high-protein foods such as meat, fish, and eggs. It is also naturally found on and in many reptiles, and does not usually make the animals sick, but if passed to humans– particularly young children, the elderly, and the infirm — it can cause a serious infection called Salmonellosis.

The Curator of Botany made a case against banning Purell from the floor due to its harmful effects on marine life.  Anti-bacterial products like Purell use synthetic polymers known as Triclocarban and Triclosan to kill off bacteria. Triclosan is known to promote the growth of resistant bacteria, including E. coli, and both pose environmental toxicity risks.  After washing your hands or washing the dishes they can get into the waste water system. Because they do not break down or get filtered out during waste water treatment, up to 75% of the original amount gets into the Bay. Once in the environment, these products have been known to disrupt the health of marine life and other wildlife.

So Academy scientists found an alternative product that does not contain the above two agents called Vionex Antimicrobial Soap for public programs. Commonly used in the medical, dental, and law enforcement industries, Vionex uses a different antimicrobial agent called PCMX, or parachlorometaxylenol, which is considered significantly less toxic to humans and other mammals than Triclocarban and Triclosan.

What can you do to reduce exposure to toxic polymers? Whenever possible avoid products that are labeled “anti-bacterial.” Products that are likely to be anti-bacterial are most hand-sanitizers, hand wipes, cleaning products, and dishwasher detergent. If you must use hand-sanitizers, consider natural ones.  My recommendation is CleanWell, which is sold at Walgreens.  I’ve carried it around with me for years now.  It is made with a patented formulation of thyme oil, it’s free of triclosan, benzalkonium chloride, and alcohol, and its active ingredient is biodegradable, breaking down quickly and completely.  Thyme has a long history of use as a medicinal plant to ward off sickness and it has also been used as an antiseptic for thousands of years in Roman, Greek, and Indian (Ayurvedic) medicine.

When in doubt, there is also good old-fashioned soap and water, which kills 90% of bacteria and leaves little impact on the environment.

You can contact Cat Aboudara via email at cat.aboudara@presidioedu.org

Cat Aboudara, Events and Special Programs Manager

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