Antimicrobials in HC: Synthetic vs. Natural

Posted on January 20, 2014


I will be the first to admit microbiology is not a formidable weapon in my knowledge arsenal.  Although as a parent, patient, and healthcare design professional, I care to know the options available to keep surfaces germ-free.

Antibacterial hand soaps have been a focus of the FDA lately due to the belief we may be doing more harm than good by adding killing agents to many household products.

With that in the back of my mind, I listened intently to a lunch-and-learn presentation last week by Flowcrete when they discussed their antimicrobial flooring.  The presenters explained that the most common germicidal additive in antimicrobial products like plastics is triclosan.  Triclosan is deemed a pesticide and defined as a “synthetic broad-spectrum antimicrobial agent” by the EPA.

What I found most interesting is that discriminating food and beverage companies will not allow triclosan in their factories.  More specifically, Flowcrete could not sell its flooring in food production facilities if it used triclosan as an ingredient.  The philosophy of the food industry is that triclosan is a chemical, is not natural (synthetic), and is therefore a contaminate.  Any chance of contamination must be avoided.

Flowcrete’s antimicrobial flooring uses silver ion technology instead.  Silver is not a chemical, is not synthetic, and is therefore welcome in food production facilities to assist in germ killing on surfaces.  Other than the organic / inorganic attribute comparison, the main difference in function is triclosan is an instantaneous killer and precious metals kill over time.  Still, healthcare conference trade shows confirm the intense interest in including naturally occurring antimicrobial elements like gold, silver and copper into the healthcare environment, where everything from faucets to cubicle curtains are using precious metals to eliminate bacteria and viruses on surfaces.

However, to my knowledge hospitals do not forbid triclosan.  I wonder why food processors are adamant triclosan is not welcome, but hospitals are not so stringent?  To me, this confirms yet another instance where the food service industry is more advanced than healthcare, and where healthcare can, and should, learn from the food service industry.  If for-profit companies recognize the value of this approach and are willing to hold a firm line on what comes into their factories, especially in the line of building products (cost of precious metals notwithstanding), hospitals should be equally adamant on a green ethos—or at least a natural one.

The more promising news is that not too far in the future most surfaces in the public domain will have antimicrobial properties as part of their composition.  Stadium handrails, elevator touch plates, mass transit seats, tray-tables on airplanes—all of the surfaces we now touch which make us immediately reach for the hand sanitizer—-have the potential to be naturally germ-free if the components are smartly sourced.  It only follows that this will all be possible in hospitals as well.  A pesticide-free hospital simply makes sense.

Posted in: Interior Design