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Slippery Characters

Biofilms--slimy layers of bacteria that antibiotics don't fully kill--are in hospitals, kitchens, even your mouth. Scientists are on the attack.

June 11, 2007|Erin Cline | Special to The Times

Biofilm research is still an emerging field. Although many approaches for dealing with biofilms in health and industrial settings have been thought up, most are still in the development stage. For now, the surest way to proceed in treating biofilms is to remove them when possible.

In hospitals, this means replacing catheters every few days. In the kitchen, it means really scrubbing produce clean. And, of course, Stewart says, "tooth brushing is a good idea."



Breeding grounds

Biofilms are not just in the human body. They can occur on any moist surface.

Fresh produce: The moist, nutrient-rich surfaces of fruits and vegetables are prime for biofilms. They can be hard to remove even with washing. This is not usually a problem unless a pathogenic bacterium, such as the strain of E. coli that was involved in the spinach recall, becomes part of the mix. Eco-Safe Systems USA is marketing a product that dissolves ozone gas in water, producing an antibacterial wash that can kill bacteria instantly, even when it is hiding in a biofilm. The ozone then breaks down to oxygen. The USDA allows produce washed with ozonated water to be labeled organic.

Industrial pipes: Biofilms can set up residence inside pipes and cause devastating corrosion. They were behind the breach found in the Alaska Pipeline last summer. Sixteen miles of pipe had to be replaced.

Household pipes: Biofilms can also build up in water pipes and air-conditioning ducts. If they grow in the pipes feeding the hot tubs, chunks of bacteria can break off, enter the hot tub and become aerosolized, leading to an infection known as "hot tub lung."

-- Erin Cline

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