New Delhi: Not too long back, an anti-bacterial product was mostly understood to be a disinfectant liquid such as Dettol.
Then there were personal care products such as soaps, hand-washes and hand sanitisers. But the fear of bacteria didn’t stop there. Anti-bacterial refrigerators, air conditioners, toilet seats and even wall paint followed to launch a war against bacteria.
Now, there is an anti-bacterial LED bulb from Crompton, trying to comfort consumers with the bright idea and catch their attention through commercials during the World Cup cricket matches.
A random search for keyword ‘antibacterial’ on online shopping website Amazon.in will show 30,000 products spanning over 48 slides. The list of products ranges from shower cream, yoga socks, hand soap, dishwashing liquid, kitchen sponges, keyboard cleaner, under-garments to electrical bulbs.
So why are Indian consumers going crazy about anti-bacterial products? The answer is simple, said experts. They are scared of falling ill.
“Driven by the regular reports of outbreaks of infections or illness apart from the trend of being a health freak, companies have been using ‘health’ as one of the top marketing tools since last decade,” said Arvind Singhal, chairman at retail consultancy Technopak Advisors.
Singhal cited the example of home appliance makers who “have no major differentiating factors in their products” and generally “use health angles to make their products stand apart from the clutter, such as anti-microbial refrigerators or anti-bacterial air conditioners”.
However, experts are still weighing the good, the bad and the ugly of these products, judging them primarily on two counts. First, do these products work? And if they do, is it healthy to stay in a germ-free environment?
The ‘technology’ on offer
These ‘anti-bacterial’ products usually claim to work on popular and proven technologies.
For instance, Asian Paints’ ‘Royale Health Shield Luxury Emulsion’ is an indoor paint that uses ‘Silver Ion Technology’ — it claims to kill 99 per cent of infection-causing bacteria within two hours of exposure to the painted surface. It also claims to reduce the possibility of respiratory infections and skin sensitisation.
According to ResearchGate, a networking platform for scientists and researchers to share papers, the technology uses ‘silver’ metal which is a very potent anti-microbial agent and has relatively low toxicity for human tissue cells.
The paint kills bacteria or viruses only when they come in contact with the walls.
But for all this, Asian Paints charges Rs 590 a litre as against Rs 147 for regular paints.
Similarly, Crompton’s LED bulb claims to kill microorganisms — such as aspergillus niger, bacillus cereus, escherichia coli, staphylococcus aureus — yeast, moulds and other wide spectra of harmful germs. The company says its bulbs emit light at a wavelength which kills these germs.
“It doesn’t contain any UV (ultraviolet) or IR (infrared) radiation hence it is completely safe for humans, pets and food items, and also gives you regular LED light,” said Rajesh Naik, lighting business head, Crompton Greaves Consumer Electricals.
The bulb is available at a premium of 25 per cent compared to a normal LED bulb.
Push by doctors’ lobby?
Technology is not the only thing, though, that these products come armed with. The country’s largest body for doctors, the Indian Medical Association, also stamps them as “safe to use”.
While the companies pay a fee to the IMA to seek its association with the brands and use its ‘stamp of approval’ in their marketing communication, former chiefs of the doctors’ lobby say it “doesn’t promote the product but only the technology”.
“The IMA has conducted independent studies on the various technologies which are helpful in decreasing harmful bacteria, such as, in paints or bulbs. An important point to note is — IMA only endorses the technology in such products (and not products),” said former IMA president Dr. Ravi Wankhedkar.
The technology in some of the products, however, isn’t supported by published studies — the strongest evidence of efficacy.
According to Dr. K.K. Aggarwal, another former IMA president, “most of the studies are lab researched and presented to the association for endorsement”.
“However, I don’t think you will find any published scientific study in evidence-based Indian journals. But most of them (products) will be substantiated by toxicology studies that they are not harmful,” said Aggarwal.
The claims in the advertisements of these products are even under the scanner of the ad watchdog, The Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI).
“We have received some complaints on these ads promoting anti-bacterial products and we have asked companies to show us the relevant studies,” said Shweta Purandare, ASCI secretary general.
Bacteria’s long term effects?
The bigger question that these technology pose is this: Do we not need bacteria at all?
Experts say we do as bacteria are constantly working towards supporting and protecting our health. They also warn that overuse of anti-bacterial products could result in the creation of superbugs that are resistant to common solutions and that would be a more alarming problem.
“We still lack knowledge on the intricate ways they (bacteria) work together and the long-term implications we will face if we permanently wipe out these strains,” said Dr. Swati Rajagopal, consultant at Bengaluru-based Aster CMI Hospital.
“Instead of working towards destroying them, we need to take steps to harbour a healthy and balanced bacterial ecosystem which benefits us and provides solutions to our several problems,” she said.
Bacteria help the human body in sustaining the health of the intestine and gut wall, regulate caloric extraction from foods, educate and regulate the immune system, modulate inflammation, regulate mood and promote mental clarity along with modulating gene expression, suggest research.
They also assist in synthesising critical nutrients for human use like vitamins — K, C, B12 — biotin, folate, butyrate and natural antibiotics.
“We are still early on using these tools and careful consideration and further studies are required to look at long term consequences,” said Rajagopal.
Other health specialists echo similar concerns.
“These (product) studies need to be verified. The question remains same — whether all these newer technologies identify the good bacteria from bad bacteria,” said Dr. Manisha Khandait, senior consultant microbiology, and infection control officer, at New Delhi-based Aakash Healthcare Super Speciality Hospital.
Another issue with using anti-bacterial products is the creation of superbugs – chemical resistant bacteria – in the process.
“The effect of UV light on the killing of bacteria’s is not a new technique. But UV rays are very harmful to mammalian cells. Similarly, the anti-microbial paints are useful in hospital setups but the efficacy of the paints is not mentioned anywhere,” said Khandait.
She also mentioned how environmental bacteria help the human body to develop immunity but “antibacterial filters in air conditioners or room air purifiers are meant to kill microorganisms from the air”.
“We don’t know the long term effect of a very controlled environment on our immune system,” added Khandait.