Thursday, April 29, 2010

Debugging the House

This week's Change the World Wednesday challenge strikes home:
"This week remove, or begin to phase out, antibacterial products from your home (specifically those products containing Triclosan). Why? Antibacterial products contribute to new strains of antibiotic-resistant "super-bugs". They are toxic chemicals which also pollute waterways and affect the environment. So this week ... get rid of them."
Antibacterial products are a good way to show how evolution works. We introduce into the bacteria's environment a substance that kills them; those few bacteria that in the natural course of variation tend to be resistent flourish in the new environment.

This was strictly an academic exercise to me until last year when I got an entry-level superbug myself. When I got what I thought was a minor eye irritation, I treated it with what would usually work: hot wet compresses, and taking it easy for a bit. This usually clears up any such problem, but not this time: the area around the eye got swollen and even I couldn't deny that it wasn't going to get better.

A trip to the doctor confirmed I had some kinda infection. They suspected MRSA (which subsequent testing confirmed) and gave me some pills that must've tasted as bad to the MRSA as they did to me, because it cleared the thing up within a few days. Since we have pretty good health care coverage, the whole thing cost me only a couple hundred dollars; there's a charge for a doctor's visit and a charge for a followup visit and a charge for lab tests and a charge for the medication. I never got a bill up front so I could make a rational decision about paying for stuff; the "free market" argument on health care is complete hooey ... but that's another story.

Before the medication kicked in, there was an additional therapeutic measure:  "expressing" the contents of the swelling. This was a gooey and unpleasant process which involved a medical professional wearing gloves and eye protection. It was sufficiently unpleasant from the perspective of sensation alone to persuade me that I didn't want to do this again. Query: what if the antibiotic hadn't worked? How long would I have had to "express" the swelling around my eye before my body's natural defenses won out? What if the superbug defeated those defenses? I don't want to know and I hope you never find out, but clearly we should feel very stupid for evolving these superbugs just to make cleaning a little bit easier.

Anyway, we are almost done moving to our new house and we plan on staying here a loooooooooong time, so we want it to be the healthiest house possible. That means systematically getting rid of anything in it that might help get us sick, or in other ways harm our environment. Getting rid of antibacterials makes sense; for most purposes, plain old soap-and-water works fine, and of course there's always alcohol. The bacteria does not exist that can swim in vodka!

1 comment:

Small Footprints said...

Wow! That really brings a whole new element to antibacterial products. When I write about them, I understand the words ... but hearing about your experience ... well, it really drives home the urgency to stop creating situations that are so harmful to human health. I'm so glad that you are okay!

Thanks for sharing your story with us! Hopefully it will make people think before buying these toxic chemicals!

Best wishes on your new home! :)