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EPA Orders Companies to Come Clean

April 16, 1998|Vanessa Hua

Some manufacturers of promising new products treated with germ-fighting chemicals have discovered a resilient foe their product can't conquer: regulatory agencies.

More than a dozen companies have come under fire from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for hyping kitchen utensils, cleaning equipment and toys treated with antibacterial chemicals. The EPA, which has forced firms to tone down their germ-fighting claims, plans to release rules on those claims next week.

Playing on consumer fears about disease, the companies have been churning out cutting boards, sponges, toys and socks spiked with germ-fighting chemicals. Already popular as hand soaps and dish detergents, antibacterial products strike a chord with consumers spooked by news about E. coli outbreaks and salmonella infections.

"It's frightening what you hear about, like flesh-eating bacteria," said Ron Vertone, a 42-year-old Burbank resident who says he goes through a 64-ounce bottle of antibacterial hand soap every two weeks. "I use this a lot. It makes me feel more comfortable."

But there is debate about what the products can actually do. The EPA, which regulates substances used to kill microbes on inanimate surfaces, contends that antibacterially treated goods do not prevent the spread of illness--such chemicals inhibit bacterial growth in products, not in humans, the agency says. (Antibacterial soaps, lotions, dishwashing soap, and other personal-care products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which is investigating some claims.)

Companies argue that the EPA is being heavy-handed. They say that labeling laws are unclear and not uniformly enforced.

The dispute has given new meaning to the term "germ warfare."

The EPA is "like a traffic cop, flagging people down. But they haven't established a speed limit," said Keith Ohmart, president of Joyce Chen Inc., whose cutting boards were pulled from the market for six months until the Billerica, Mass., firm changed the product's name from Board of Health to Board of Choice and added labeling caveats to their namesake brand. Ohmart said the EPA never gave him clear packaging guidelines, making the revision process confusing and drawn out.

At other companies, the EPA has imposed fines and halted production. Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Co. in St. Paul, Minn., paid a $238,000 penalty and changed its O-Cel-O sponge advertising.


Agency officials say antimicrobial ingredients are registered as a product preservative that slows bacterial decay, not as protection against disease. They contend that the health claims are misleading, and possibly harmful.

"If consumers rely on a public health claim and it doesn't work, then they're put at risk," said Bill Jordan, associate director of the EPA's antimicrobial division. "You wouldn't want to go to a hospital where you think the scalpels have been sterilized and then discover that's not true."

At stake is what manufacturers view as a promising area for growth. By adding chemicals such as triclosan, triclocarbon and VinyzeneDP-7000, companies can pep up old products. For some firms, offering the antibacterial option has become the price of staying competitive. After New York-based Colgate-Palmolive made a splash with Palmolive Ultra antibacterial dishwashing soap in 1994, other major manufacturers followed suit.

Such products, according to the EPA, might suppress bacterial growth, mold and foul odors but not do much to prevent disease. That's because so many different factors contribute to catching a cold. Antimicrobials kill or check the growth of bacteria--a treated soap leaves a germ-fighting residue on skin after washing, for example. By comparison, ordinary soap and water physically lift and wash away dirt and bacterial contaminants.

The dispute about claims has already washed some products down the drain. Hasbro is discontinuing its Playskool line of antibacterial toys. The Pawtucket, R.I., company said sales of the toys--including Frog Waterpal and Roll 'n Rattle Ball--have been disappointing since the EPA laid down a $120,000 fine and forced the toy maker to rewrite its marketing claims. The firm had to change its claim that a "unique germ-fighting technology inhibits the growth of germs on toys" to say that chemicals protect "the inside of the toy."

Lifetime Hoan Farberware, Ecko Housewares and Dexas International also changed the labeling on their antibacterial cutting boards and kitchen equipment by federal order.

Nonetheless, various companies launched 219 germ-busting goods in 1997, nearly double the number introduced in the previous year, according to Marketing Intelligence Service Ltd. in Naples, N.Y. Antibacterial hand soaps alone account for 20% of the liquid and bar soap market, racking up $210 million in sales last year, according to research firm ACNielsen.

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