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Natural disinfectants lack killer instinct, study shows

A recent study showed that conventional disinfectants are more effective than natural, environmentally friendly alternatives.  

January 31, 2000
Web posted at: 10:22 a.m. EST (1522 GMT)

By Environmental News Network staff

If part of the good housekeeping seal in your home is ridding the kitchen and bathroom counters of disease-causing organisms, you're better off using a commercial disinfectant than a natural, environmentally friendly product, a recent study shows.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill tested conventional household disinfectants, hospital disinfectants and natural alternatives to measure each product's ability to kill specific hazardous microbes.

Conventional disinfectants used in the experiment included Clorox, ethanol, Mr. Clean Ultra, Lysol Disinfectant Spray and Lysol Antibacterial Kitchen Cleaner. Hospital disinfectants were TBQ, Vesphene and ethanol. Natural alternatives included vinegar and baking soda.

"The good news was that [all of the commercial disinfectants] were very good, eliminating 99.9 percent or more of microbes," said William Rutala, professor of medicine at UNC. "The bad news was that such natural products as vinegar and baking soda didn't work nearly as well."

An estimated 30 million food-borne infections occur each year, causing more than 9,000 deaths, Rutala said. Scientists also believe that more than two million hospital-acquired infections annually cause 19,000 deaths and contribute to another 58,000 fatalities. Contamination in day-care centers frequently leads to diarrhea and other diseases.

In their study, the scientists examined the effect of commercial and natural disinfectants on disease-causing microbes during 30-second and five-minute exposures. The organisms used in the test included Staphylococcus aureus, Salmonella choleraesuis, Escherichia coli 0157:H7, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, poliovirus, and vancomycin-susceptible and vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus species.

The commercial products killed almost all of the germs. The natural alternatives, vinegar and baking soda, paled in comparison, killing 90 percent or less of the germs.

Clorox and Lysol Disinfectant Spray fared especially well with the poliovirus microbe, doing away with more than 99.9 percent of the virus. Though poliovirus is virtually nonexistent in the United States, Rutala and his colleagues tested the virus because it is more difficult to kill and therefore provides a good indication of effective disinfecting properties.

The researchers conducted their study in large measure to test the claims of commercial manufacturers. Many products on the market are not tested against significant viruses and bacteria, said Rutala. Growing concern about emerging infectious diseases and antibiotic-resistant microbes also fueled their curiosity.

"We now know that kitchen and bathroom surfaces in most homes show high levels of contamination that can lead to disease and that disinfectants can eliminate most of that contamination," Rutala said. "What we don't know yet is whether disinfecting drains, taps, handles and toilet seats would actually decrease infection rates among family members. It may be that more direct contact in families such as touching, kissing, sneezing and sharing food or eating utensils plays a much bigger role in spreading infections."

The study was published in the January issue of the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology. Other contributors to the project were Mark Sobsey, professor of environmental sciences and engineering at the School of Public Health, professor of medicine David Weber, research associate Susan Barbee and student Newman Aguiar.

Copyright 2000, Environmental News Network, All Rights Reserved

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University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology
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