What lies beneath?
April proved to be a critical month for antimicrobial products based on a substance called triclosan. Amid calls for manufacturers to ban its use, OPI meets the companies who would welcome global regulation
On April 8th, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will be taking a look at the safety of a widely used antibacterial chemical, triclosan.
Triclosan – as well as its cousin triclocarban – is an organic compound found in 75 percent of liquid hand soaps, deodorant bar soaps, face washes, deodorants, toothpastes and mouthwashes, as well as in germ-fighting cutting boards and socks. It’s also in a large number of office products listed in your friendly neighbourhood wholesaler’s catalogue.
In an article published by Beyond Pesticides, several branded computer consumables were listed among products using triclosan including Colgate toothpaste, Clearasil Daily Face Wash and Merrell shoes. Triclosan stops or slows the growth of bacteria and fungi and is added to many products as a preservative to prevent bacterial contamination within the product itself
Those who criticise its use claim triclosan is carcinogenic and messes with the body’s immune system. Some studies have questioned its effectiveness against bacteria, and some have even gone as far as to suggest that its prevalent and long-term use is actually improving bacterial resistance.
The FDA currently describes triclosan as "not known to be hazardous to humans" although proposals by the agency to regulate the chemical for consumer use stretch back to the 1970s.
In January, Rep Edward J Markey (D-Mass.) wrote letters to the FDA and the US Environmental Protection Agency asking them both to review new evidence about the potential harms of triclosan. In a letter responding to Markey, the agency promised to evaluate the new evidence and to come to a conclusion by next spring, although a full re-evaluation of the current regulation regarding the chemical is not due until 2013.
Predictably, perhaps, the association representing one of the industries with the most to lose, the Soap and Detergent Association, has been on the offensive to emphasise that triclosan is used in products to play a beneficial role in the daily hygiene routines of millions of people, adding: "Antibacterial hygiene and cleaning products continue to be used safely and effectively in homes, hospitals, and workplaces every single day. Science-based risk analysis backs this up, thanks to the industry’s long-standing research and product stewardship efforts."
The FDA announcement that it will at least review triclosan use has given momentum to the consumer groups calling for an immediate ban of the substance. They argue that if there are doubts over its safety, evidence indicating that the chemical is no more effective than, say, regular soap and water for preventing illness, and it contains chemicals that can harm human health and the environment, then there is no choice but to remove it from shop shelves.
"Consumers in the United States spend almost $1 billion per year on ‘antibacterial’ soaps and other products, often motivated by the notion that these products will protect their families from harmful germs and illnesses," says Sarah Janssen at Natural Resources Defense Council. "The FDA needs to take action now to stop the continued sale of ineffective and potentially unsafe antimicrobial chemicals in household."
So far the FDA has done little to suggest it will reverse its own 30 years of regulation and it is going to need conclusive evidence if it is going to bring forward a planned re-evaluation in 2013. However, if the FDA doesn’t ban the organic compound, the Senate may, should Markey successfully force a bill through that will regulate triclosan more strictly and speed up the evaluation process.
Now would be the time for office products manufacturers to evaluate their own ranges of antimicrobial products because, whether a ban happens in 2010 or 2013 (or even at all), the triclosan case is making it ever more likely that proper regulation, certification and labelling of antibacterial and antimicrobial products will be introduced to the US.
According to many manufacturers of antimicrobial products (some with triclosan, some with other alternatives) interviewed by OPI, it is a move that they would be supportive of.
"With the growth of antimicrobial products also come products that falsely claim to be antimicrobial, use a less powerful generic additive, or contain harmful antimicrobial additives," Drew Bowers of Samsill tells OPI. "That, in addition to limited education, extensive marketing regulation and contradictive information on the web, leaves the consumer extremely confused and frustrated. A certification would help keep harmful products off the shelf and let users know that their money is being spent wisely on products that work."
Samsill uses additives in its ring binders supplied by Agion that are silver-based (instead of triclosan). Agion also has global registrations with both the EPA and FDA. "This gives us and our customers confidence," says Bowers.
One of the concerns surrounding triclosan is the possibility that bacteria are building resistance to its properties. There is not any evidence to suggest the same can be said of silver (in simple terms, it is believed silver has strong antimicrobial properties because it is toxic to bacteria, fungi and some viruses). It is also not as toxic to humans and animals such as heavy metals like lead and mercury, making it, Bowers says, completely safe to users and the environment.
"What makes us different from our competition is that we use an all natural silver-based additive. There are other antimicrobial binders on the market but we feel that our products stand apart from the rest."
Currently there is no evidence suggesting that silver, like other antimicrobial substances and materials, can fend off the effects of viruses, such as Avian Flu and Swine Flu, but that didn’t stop 2009 being a bumper year for the industry’s suppliers of antimicrobial products.
The industry is self-regulated to a degree with external, independent testing the norm and not an exception. Both manufacturers and consumers benefit, as Samsill’s Bowers explains: "Using an external source lets us work with someone specialising in the field and gives us unbiased analysis of the product using industry standard tests. This gives us and our customers full confidence that our products live up to our claims."
European manufacturer Atlanta sends its antimicrobial-treated products for testing and approval by the ‘Kyoto Bitseibutso Kenkyusyo’ institute, one of the leading research institutes in the field in Kyoto, Japan. When successful, the products earn the ISO 22196 certification, a standard that evaluates the antibacterial activity of antibacterial-treated plastic products, although not the safety of the chemicals used to humans.
"Next to this we are also working on local certifications together with well-known European test institutions," comments Atlanta Managing Director, Reiner Eckhardt. "Our company policy is to work solemnly with official certifications, like we do with all other product innovations and we also want to continue this with the antimicrobial range. As soon as there are further official standards we will make sure our product line is certified to these."
In the absence of obligatory global and industry-specific certification and labelling, Atlanta has outlined its own set of criteria for what makes a legitimate product with antimicrobial properties. The active ingredient must be ‘in’ the product and not just a cover or small layer and it should not wear off or dissolve or vaporise. The product must give lifetime protection and not only for a limited time, nor cause harm to the user or the environment. The protection must also be active without special attention of the user.
There are plenty of antimicrobial sprays and gels available to protect plastic products but Atlanta’s products come ‘ready to shield’.
"If you want a plastic foil to protect you, others and the enclosed documents, you want this without putting a spray on it. It must be there as soon as you use the product," adds Eckhardt.
Although it utilises a broad portfolio of technologies, including its new 3G (third generation) silver antimicrobial technology, Microban is one company that would be affected by a ban on triclosan. Triclosan is the active ingredient in a number of office products based on the Huntersville (NC) company’s branded antimicrobial chemical products.
Microban has a higher profile in the US, but its presence in Europe has been growing for some years and Microban Europe’s Managing Director, Paul McDonnell, claims the company’s research shows that it has become the market leading brand in Europe when it comes to antibacterial protection.
With doubts being raised over the efficacy of antimicrobial products, especially triclosan, the company uses a thorough multi-stage approach to product testing.
McDonnell says that all products engineered and enhanced by Microban antimicrobial technologies undergo extensive testing "using industry standard testing methods to ensure products provide durable and effective antimicrobial protection".
"Microban’s own laboratories work consistently with external laboratories to gain independent certification for product applications of all types. Independent laboratory certification provides Microban product applications with an added level of technical authenticity," he says. "Application of the ‘Microban brand’ to a product means that it is certified to perform to the standards applied."
This approach is underpinned by the Microban Quality Assurance Programme which is designed to support the validation and substantiation of technology claims; the Microban Certification Programme is a quality assurance process that is individually tailored to each partner and product to monitor all Microban applications.
"Essentially this is designed to test Microban-treated products on a regular basis using current, internationally recognised test methods to substantiate technology claims; reinforce the importance of robust production methods; and support partners with the correct claims language. The dedicated certification programme allows manufacturers utilising Microban to use robust claims on pack and at the point of sale – for example, ‘preventing 99.9 percent of bacteria’. We’re helping our customers meet an important consumer need for added cleanliness, especially since our products have frequent hand contact and are infrequently cleaned."
John Anthony, Marketing Director of one of Microban’s partners, Cosco Industries emphasises: "We rely on our partner, Microban, to test our enhanced products. Our main strengths are in developing value-added features to mature products such as hand-held stamping devices, business signage. Incorporating Microban antimicrobial additives into our Accustamp product line is a perfect example."
The Swine Flu effect
Swine Flu was unquestionably the story of last summer in the northern hemisphere taking up millions of column inches and minutes of TV programming and shifting antimicrobial products in vast quantities.
Fortunately, fears that the globe was going to succumb to a Swine Flu pandemic that would take millions of lives have so far proved, shall we say, overly pessimistic. This is partly because it was successfully controlled in many countries and also because the virus didn’t spread as widely and as quickly as predicted.
However the sales of antimicrobial products through the media frenzy of last summer and into 2010 prove that consumers are determined to avoid being exposed to any danger from what lies beneath. Post-Swine Flu demand will endure.
"Swine Flu and other health epidemics have certainly heightened consumer awareness about ‘germs’, bacterial and viral infections. Recent government-issued information regarding Swine Flu indicated that cross contamination in ‘high traffic’ areas was seen as a key factor in the spread of infection," says Microban’s McDonnell. "There is a definite appetite among consumers for products of all kinds that have antibacterial protection, probably far in excess of the number of products currently available in most sectors of the market," he says.
"No matter where you turn you are hearing about germs and how to avoid them," adds Samsill’s Dan Bowers. "Whether that’s news coverage (magazines, TV, newspapers and internet) on Swine Flu, or the risk of getting the cold and standard flu in the office and school, or increased infections in hospitals, or worries that germs are collecting in common places such as office space, school rooms and hotel rooms."
The wave of media coverage may have been essential to Samsill’s own recent successes but Bowers has also observed a following trend: the growing number of other antimicrobial products on the market and the advertising around them has helped raised the profile and sales of its products.
"This has made more people aware of the term antimicrobial and the benefits of using products with antimicrobial properties. More awareness leads to customers wanting and asking for the same benefits in a wide range of products," he adds.
If you’re going to ride a consumer wave it helps if you’re first to the market or a category, says Benjamin Barteaud of Tarifold, especially if you’re then able to maintain that ride.
"When we launched our antibacterial display system three years ago, we were the first on the market. [Being early] meant we met the demand as it was triggered by various threats of diseases," he says.
"Companies are increasingly aware that the more employees get ill and stay at home, the more money they lose," he says. "When you know that a telephone or a keyboard has thousands of times more germs than a toilet seat, you know that you’d better keep your desk clean!"
Barteau says that because of the fears over Swine Flu in the past year, Tarifold has been successfully selling in its Sterifilm for use to cover the lifts command panels knobs that are touched hundreds of time everyday by many different people in Hong Kong. Operating in a number of markets, Barteaud has gained a global perspective, and feels that the time is right for a global standard of certification.
"I believe that certification would help distinguish trustful products from non-trustful ones. But the problem is that it would have to be a global one, because there are major differences in norms from the USA to China and also Europe…it will take quite a long time to get there!"