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Are Antimicrobial Products Safe to Use in Remodels?

A lack of formal scientific studies and inconclusive results lead to a non-answer, as green building and wellness organizations are speaking out against the use of antimicrobial materials.

April 08, 2021
E-Coli bacteria

If there was a magic material that could kill COVID-19, would you include it in your renovations? There isn’t one. But there are antimicrobial products for building and renovation, and many manufacturers are marketing their antimicrobial products within the context of the pandemic and homeowners’ increased desire for a healthy home. However, before remodelers jump to include antimicrobial products in the next project, green building and wellness organizations say that they should slow down, do thorough research, and reconsider. 

So what’s the buzz about antimicrobial products in building?

Five green building and health-focused groups have come out against the use of antimicrobial products in new construction and remodels until further testing is done to assess the impact on homeowners’ health. 

“Unfortunately, the science behind antimicrobials in building products doesn’t live up to the marketing claims,” says Tom Bruton, senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute, and one of the statement authors. “In fact, these products may be providing a false sense of protection from the novel coronavirus while posing other health threats.”

We're not advocating that anyone rip out products that are already installed, but we do think it's important that builders and remodelers make informed choices moving forward.

Concerns of the authors include dubious marketing tactics and hidden ingredients, the impact on human health, and the potential to create superbugs, saying that “there is little evidence that using building products with added antimicrobials results in reduced infections and disease.” 

The five authors of the joint statement are the Healthy Building Network, Green Science Policy Institute, Perkins & Will, International Living Future Institute, and the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. Other signers include Heather Buckley, Assistant Professor, University of Victoria, Erica Hartmann, Assistant Professor, Northwestern University, Megan R. Schwarzman, Associate Director, Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, Brightworks Sustainability, ZGF Architects, Health Care Without Harm, Center for Environmental Health, and HKS, Inc.

So what should remodelers do if they installed antimicrobial products?

“We're not advocating that anyone rip out products that are already installed,” says Bruton, who has a doctorate in environmental engineering. “But we do think it's important that builders and remodelers make informed choices moving forward, in the case of added antimicrobials, the benefits are unproven and the potential for harm is real.”

Although Bruton would not dispute the claims of manufacturers who say their products can kill bacteria and viruses, he does wonder how meaningful the claims are if they haven’t been tested in not just reducing the number of bacteria, but also reducing infections of the occupants in the building. Besides studies on copper in healthcare settings reducing infections, there is limited research on that front. 

Additionally, just because a product can kill one kind of bacteria or virus doesn’t mean it will work on all kinds, which is of particular note when manufacturers take the pandemic angle to push antimicrobial products. “If we're talking specifically about COVID-19, it's important to remember that it is a virus,” Burton says. “We cannot necessarily expect an antimicrobial that claims to kill bacteria to kill viruses as well.” Therefore, professionals need to know exactly what they’re installing or applying to a client’s home. 

Can antimicrobials harm homeowners? 

According to the statement, antimicrobials used in building products include “quaternary ammonium compounds, which are associated with asthma, a potential risk factor for severe COVID-19.” The authors claim another common additive that is banned in handsoaps, Triclosan, can “disrupt hormone functioning but is still used in some building products.” To the authors, the risks outweigh the rewards of using these kinds of products with additives that could potentially harm the homeowners and call for greater transparency from the companies about which ingredients they are using. 

Unfortunately, this kind of transparency can be hard as the general public often isn’t familiar with the active ingredients, and sometimes those additives aren’t even listed. “Disclosure of additives is becoming more prevalent, but antimicrobials often fall below reporting thresholds for transparency documents,” the statement says. “Sometimes chemical ingredient information is withheld as proprietary, or trade names covering numerous chemical mixtures are reported, in lieu of reporting the exact chemical ingredient.”

Can antibacterial products in renovations create superbugs?

The experts are not sure if antimicrobial products could create superbugs later down the line, and that’s what worries them. 

“Creation of superbugs is definitely a concern,” says Ryan Johnson, a materials researcher at the Healthy Building Network. “Indoor microbial ecology is incredibly complex and we are still learning how building materials could contribute to antimicrobial resistance.”

Because of the unknown effects of antibacterial products and materials in the home, Johnson says that remodelers should approach these kinds of materials with caution. Although there are no specific studies that reveal the impact on the rate of infections, he notes that commonly used antimicrobials in other products can contribute to creating antibacterial resistance. 

So how can remodelers enhance the health of the homeowners?

For remodelers who still want to aim to build healthy homes and enhance their clients’ wellbeing, Johnson suggests that good ventilation should be prioritized as it “not only can it reduce exposure to airborne bacteria and viruses, but it can also reduce exposure to chemicals present in indoor air that can affect people's health.”

On the other hand, the statement isn’t ruling out antimicrobial products forever: The authors are calling for standard guidelines, transparency, and more research before they are incorporated into building practice. Overall, remodelers should use caution when selecting materials and look past marketing speak to select products that will work best for the homeowner. 

Pro Remodeler reached out for statements from manufacturers that market products with antimicrobial properties without a response. 

Want other suggestions for promoting wellness in the home? Check out tips for remodelers on biophilia and wellness design in the video below from Jamie Gee, author of Wellness by Design: 

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