Research has shown that while antimicrobials do have some positive attributes, such as their ability to be used as a preservative in building materials, their presence in the built environment may create more harm than good.
These days, the emergence of COVID-19 has made this question a more immediate concern. As states and local municipalities prepare in various ways to tackle the difficult task of “reopening,” many articles and seminars have emerged on how to successfully navigate this transition from the safety of our homes back into the real world. Architects and designers are being asked to participate in these conversations as well, given that we help shape the environments in which people spend their time. How can we support efforts to reopen schools, businesses, worship facilities – you name it – while mitigating the spread of disease?
One strategy being suggested is the increased use of antimicrobial products or coatings. Seems simple: include antimicrobials on various surfaces (door handles, faucets, countertops, even paint), inhibit the growth of bacteria and pathogens, and we’re good to go, right? Not necessarily. Research has shown that while antimicrobials do have some positive attributes, such as their ability to be used as a preservative in building materials, their presence in the built environment may create more harm than good. Here are a couple of examples:
- Antibiotic Resistance: According to research by Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest nonprofit integrated health care system, antibiotic resistance “occurs when germs develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them,” and the resistance is “caused primarily by over-prescription of antibiotic medications and indiscriminate use of antimicrobial compounds in soaps and other consumer goods.” This includes building materials. Basically, the more we try to kill off the bacteria in our environment, the harder the bacteria works to overcome our efforts. As such, Kaiser Permanente “banned paint and other interior building products treated with “germ-fighting” antimicrobial agents for use in its hospitals and other buildings to address concerns about mounting exposure to toxic chemicals in everyday life and the threat of drug-resistant bacteria.”
- Potential for Chemical Toxicity: simply put, some products and chemicals are more harmful than others. Not only has the CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) found no evidence “to suggest any enhanced protection” from antimicrobial products, many studies on specific chemicals have found the exact opposite. Triclosan, a commonly used ingredient in antimicrobial and antibacterial products, has been shown to have harmful effects to hormone, reproduction, and immune systems – and as such, has been banned by the FDA from many consumer products. In response, many companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble have begun to produce triclosan-free alternatives.
So now what? We want to do our part to aid in the health of building occupants, so what are some alternatives?
Hand washing is critical! Virus and bacteria-fighting surfaces are no substitute for good old-fashioned soap and water. Ensure public restrooms are cleaned thoroughly and frequently, and well-stocked with the basic supplies needed for clean hands. Look for supplies that are triclosan-free.
Opt for easier to clean surfaces and inherently antimicrobial materials over applied antimicrobial coatings to promote healthier spaces.
Consider touch-free alternatives for faucets, flush valves, hand dryers, and even door-operating hardware (when appropriate). Bonus: those touch-free washroom products are also great for reducing water usage in a facility!
In short, it is paramount to provide design solutions that address public health issues while also being mindful of inadvertent hazards along the way.