How essential is microbial control for the functioning of society?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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José Mosquera is Chairman of the Microbial Control Executive Council and Global Strategy and Growth Leader at IFF Microbial Control.

With its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), the European Commission aims to phase out the most harmful chemicals for non-essential societal use, in particular in consumer products.

The CSS describes essential societal use of chemicals as “a use necessary for health, safety or is critical for the functioning of society and if there are no alternatives that are acceptable from the standpoint of environment and health.” Criteria will be designed in that regard in 2022. Will microbial control solutions meet these criteria?

Microbial control can help reduce the spread of disease outbreaks

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of hand and surface disinfectants to combat the spread of viruses. Microbes present on the hands are one of the main sources for the transfer of pathogens through physical contact.

These bacteria and viruses are often found in high numbers on our skin, which naturally helps them to thrive, some for well over two hours. Proper hygiene is key to protect us from spreading germs to prevent disease outbreaks, as well as food contamination.

In many daily situations, hand washing is a sufficient measure, but in health care settings and in crowded places such as supermarkets or public transport, hand, as well as hard-surface disinfectants, provide a superior method of microbial control.

With its annual ‘Clean Hands Save Lives Campaign’, the WHO reminds us all, that very small things can alter the course of a patient’s recovery. In Europe, for example, 4.6% to 9.3% of patients are affected by healthcare associated infections (HCAIs) that can be transmitted both through direct and indirect contact.

Microbial control technologies can enhance the lifespan of products

Microbial control technologies can serve as preservative in many applications. Take paint for instance: solvent-based paints are increasingly substituted in Europe by water-based alternatives.

The water-based paint is safer to use, but more prone to spoilage. Antimicrobials in water-based formulations therefore enable an adequate shelf life of the paint. These paints, once stabilised, can also protect the material they are applied to.

Changes to our climate and the increased use of insulation materials in our homes, facilitate growth of microorganisms on the exterior walls of our houses, making the role of paints and coatings more important.

In Germany alone, the economic damage of microbial induced aesthetic defacement and bio corrosive deterioration is estimated between €8 billion and €16 billion per year.

Beyond using paints as microbial control technology, the adhesives and sealants, plastic and wood used in the construction of our homes, offices, and industrial equipment can also be treated with microbial control technologies to protect them from the damaging effects of mould, mildew, fungi, algae and other organisms.

Poor microbial control in industrial systems could lead to corrosion, and as a result failure of equipment, and loss of production.

By prolonging the shelf life of products, antimicrobials effectively reduce waste. Furthermore, microbial control technologies can ensure that fewer natural resources are needed, because products do not need to be replaced as often.

Microbial control technologies and safety

Microbial control technologies intend to exterminate, render harmless, or prevent the spread of harmful organisms. While on the one hand the substances may be of a somewhat aggressive nature, these same substances aim to protect us against microorganisms we cannot otherwise control.

By taking appropriate measures, the microbial control technologies can be safely used. It is a priority for MCEC members to educate users on how to safely use microbial control solutions, ensuring that instructions of use are followed, and risk mitigation measures are applied preventing harm to the user, their surroundings, or the environment.

MCEC member companies also conduct extensive research to find microbial control solutions where only the unwanted microorganisms are targeted, and humans and the environment remain unharmed.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach for alternative substances and identifying a substitute does not equal the replacement of one substance in all existing applications. Thus, companies’ capacities to reformulate their products for consumers and professional users – large ones and SMEs alike – can be limited.

Furthermore, substituting substances can take substantial time and resources before delivering results. Substances need to be proven sufficiently efficient without unacceptable risk for human health or the environment for each use. For this, an extensive efficacy and toxicological data package is needed.

Furthermore, the lack of guarantee that the new substance or product will pass the scrutiny of the approval process could result in little incentive for innovation in this area.

It can take up to 10 years before a new solution is accepted to market. New active substances need to undergo a thorough scrutiny first, and rightfully so. This scrutiny is largely linked to compliance with the Biocidal Product Regulation (BPR) which provides the framework to assess the risk and efficacy of biocidal products.

Under the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation, companies must demonstrate how their substance can be safely used, and they must communicate appropriate risk management measures to the users.

The Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation requires manufacturers, importers or downstream users of substances or mixtures to classify, label and package their hazardous chemicals appropriately before placing them on the market.

MCEC considers microbial control technologies essential

Thanks to microbial control products, society has become used to a level of hygiene and well-being that would be compromised without them.

Since protecting humans and the environment is the core remit for members of MCEC, we will continue to do research for alternatives that further reduce the impact on humans and the environment. Until these alternatives exist, current technologies remain essential.

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