Common Disinfectants Create Mutant Superbugs

Ultra-resistant mutant bacteria--more frightening than sci-fi movies from the 1980s. Film still: The Fly

The manufacturers of cleaning products have made a lot of money convincing people that they are under constant assault from harmful bacteria. We've been told that the only way to keep our families safe and ensure good health is to disinfect, disinfect, disinfect! But, according to the latest research, all this superfluous disinfecting could be spawning mutant bacteria capable of resisting the strongest antibiotics. These superbugs have even the most unflappable of scientists doubling-up on their intensifiers:

"This is very, very worrying," says one researcher.The research conducted by the National University of Ireland tested the bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which responsible for one out of every ten hospital-acquired infections. This strain is said to be "opportunistic" in that it typically affects those with immune systems already weakened.

A mutated strain of P. aeruginosa was observed developing a resistance to the common disinfectant benzalkonium chloride (BSK) with rapidly increasing tolerance. Eventually, the mutated superbug was able withstand concentrations of BSK 400 times greater than the non-mutated strain, according to a report in The Star.

But that's only the half of it.
The superbug form of P. aeruginosa, which became resilient against BSK after prolonged exposure to the chemical, was also found to be resistance to the powerful antibiotic ciprofloxacin--despite never being exposed to it. Ciprofloxacin is considered a "drug of last resort" in fighting some of the world's scariest bacteria, such as anthrax. Researchers worry that if a bacteria strain more powerful than P. aeruginosa were to develop the resistance, the consequences could be devastating.

Another factor that has scientists wringing their hands is the dominance of the mutated strain over its non-mutated counterparts.

Dr. Gerard Fleming:

The organism that evolved outgrew all the other organisms. It means that a small amount of disinfectant will actually promote the growth of the organism. It's crossed that barrier.

What Can Stop These Superbugs?
According to the researchers, the overuse of disinfectants is to blame for the creation of these superbugs. Each time bacteria is exposed to diluted solutions of disinfecting chemicals like BSK, if its not killed, then each subsequent generation of the bacteria will be more resilant to the product.

Dr. Fleming:

We are without a doubt over-disinfecting. Not all bacteria are bad. I'm not saying don't use disinfectants. But they have to be used properly and in the right context.

The doctor was sure to differentiate the role of disinfectants in a hospital setting from that of the home. While it is important that hospitals be virtually bacteria-free, at home it's important to clean regularly, but "not the chair you sit in every day or the telephone or the doorknobs if you're a reasonably healthy person," according to Fleming.

Fleming and the other researchers at the National University of Ireland plan to continue their studies in order to see if other bacteria have the potential to become superbugs as well. The current study will be published in the journal Microbiology.

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Tags: Bacteria | Chemicals | Cleaning | Ireland | Universities