ATLANTA -- Mom would be proud: All that nagging about washing your hands and cleaning behind the ears finally sank in -- perhaps too much.
Some experts say Americans are obsessively clean, coating everything from toothbrush handles to hospital walls with anti-bacterials and snapping up hundreds of new household cleaning products.
The problem is that all that scrubbing and sponging may be weakening our immune systems, killing helpful germs and spurring the growth of mutant strains of super bacteria.
''It's a craze,'' said Stuart Levy, a Tufts University geneticist who spoke Monday at a conference on new infectious diseases. ''The public is just gobbling it up. There was a bandwagon, and it got bigger and bigger and bigger.''
Levy pushes an idea that he says has been lost in the advertising campaigns of anti-bacterial dish detergents, soaps and cutting boards: Sometimes, bacteria are the good guys, strengthening our bodies' defenses and warding off germs.
He longs for the days when children built strong immune systems in part by getting dirty. And he wants Americans to trust the same cleaners their parents did -- old-fashioned soap and water.
Anti-bacterials claim to go beyond that and are misleading, he said.
''I've seen no evidence to show that that they work, nor that they have a health benefit,'' he said.
Not surprisingly, companies that make the anti-bacterials disagree.
''It's removing a significant amount of bacteria,'' said Kelly Anchrum, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble Co. ''If you look at the way we live today versus the way we might have lived 50 years ago, personal hygiene has been a major contributor to our country's improved health.''
Makers of anti-bacterials say there's no hard evidence that their products are fostering stronger bacteria. And they point to strong sales -- retailers sold $400 million of anti-bacterial hand soaps alone last year -- as proof that consumers aren't worried.
P&G began offering anti-bacterial versions of its popular Dawn and Joy dish soaps four years ago and recently introduced anti-bacterial towelettes under its Mr. Clean label.
''It's what consumers are looking for,'' Anchrum said.
But some experts say Americans' health consciousness has turned compulsive over the past five years.
''People are looking for quick answers, fast solutions, a pill for every ill,'' said Kathy Young, executive director of the Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics.
Levy said research has proved that overuse of anti-bacterials, like antibiotics, will create stronger, more dangerous strains of bacteria.
''If you're bacteria, you're not just going to sit down and give up,'' he said. ''You're going to develop new forms.''
On the Net:
Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics: http://www.antibiotic.org
Procter & Gamble: http://www.pg.com
Microban Products Co.: http://www.microban.com
Conference page: http://www.cdc.gov/iceid
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