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EPA Orders Companies to Come Clean

Advertising & Marketing | Advertising / Vanessa Hua

April 16, 1998|Vanessa Hua

Many products are pushing the antibacterial craze into new territory. Out in stores are foot scrubs, toothpastes and lotions, as well as treated products such as bathtubs, pillows and water tanks. There are Fruit of the Loom stink-squelching socks from Farley Industries, Reach toothbrushes with a microbe-mauling handle from Johnson & Johnson, and Colgate All gum-disease-destroying toothpaste from Colgate-Palmolive.

Other weapons in personal care include a foot scrub by Freeman, Keri lotion by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Sally Hansen hand sanitizer by Del Laboratories. Enthusiasts can outfit their homes boy-in-the-bubble style with antibacterial counter tops and bathroom accessories with Microban, a chemical agent that dissolves germ cell walls.

Experts say fear of disease--reinforced by media hoopla over the latest exotic microbe--fans the flames of consumer demand. Even shoppers with some doubts about product effectiveness are buying.

"It's insurance," said David Stewart, a USC marketing professor who studies consumer behavior. "They think it can't hurt. It gives them a sense of control over the environment."

But medical experts worry that shoppers might place too much trust in antibacterial products and not wash objects as often as they should. They say people should keep surfaces used for preparing food clean and wash their hands regularly, lathering under hot water for at least 15 seconds.

"One of my concerns is such products may potentially discourage hand-washing," said David Pegues, an epidemiologist at UCLA Medical Center. "If you don't decontaminate with soap and water, it won't remove microorganisms."

Manufacturers respond that consumers are savvy enough to know they must keep up good hygiene--and argue that there's a demand for antibacterials throughout the home.

"Less bacteria is better than more bacteria," said Gary Kroll, marketing director of Microban, a Huntersville, N.C., antibacterial chemical company currently in a legal dispute with the EPA. "It's a natural in a cutting board. And if it's a good idea in a counter top, why not have it in carpeting, or in paint on walls? Why not on every surface?"

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In the end, the trend might collapse under the weight of its success. Most soaps and dishwashing detergents now offer antibacterial versions. Analysts say companies trying too hard to be unique might go overboard with inappropriate applications.

In coming months, the introduction of cheaper store brands could wash out premium products. Big brands will no longer be able to use the feature to set their products apart from generics, said Rick Seibold, president of AcuPoll, a Cincinnati-based market research firm. "Antibacterial won't be the differentiating, ownable feature."

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De-bugging Claims

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered manufacturers to tone down germ-fighting claims about antibacterial products. Here is how some manufacturers have modified claims to comply.

Hasbro

Product: Playskool Toys

Before: "Microban antibacterial protection . . . for the life of the toy! . . . unique germ fighting technology inhibits the growth of germs on toys . . . ."

After: "Microban antibacterial protection built in to protect the inside of the toy! Inhibits the growth of bacteria!"

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Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing

Product: O-Cel-O Sponge

Before: "Kills germs like salmonella and E. coli in the sponge."

After: "Resists odors! Kills germs in the sponge."

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Dexas International

Product: Cutting Board

Before: "Safboard-AB, the hygienically safe cutting board . . . treated to resist attack from mold, algae, fungi and microorganisms."

After: "Antibacterial properties do not protect users or others against bacteria, viruses, germs, or other disease organisms."

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Joyce Chen

Product: Cutting Boards

Before: Board of Health

After: Board of Choice

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Lifetime Hoan Farberware

Product: Farberware cutting board

Before: "Protection built in to inhibit the growth of bacteria on the cutting board."

After: "Protection is built in to inhibit the growth of bacteria that may affect the plastic in the product and does not protect users or others against food-borne bacteria."

Source: The companies

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