What is the definition of microbial control?

Microbial control is the process that controls or prevents the growth of dangerous microorganisms through sterilization, disinfection, antisepsis, sanitization or degerming. Sterilization is the complete elimination of all forms of microbial life. Disinfection is the destruction of pathogenic organisms on inanimate objects, while antisepsis refers to the elimination of bacteria on a living tissue. Sanitization refers to the reduction in the number of pathogens to a level deemed safe by public health guidelines. Degerming is the physical removal of microorganisms through the use of soaps or detergents.

How does microbial control work?

Microbial control uses antimicrobial products and technologies to reduce or prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms, viruses, bacteria and molds that threaten human health or the environment. Antimicrobial substances or agents use various different mechanisms to eliminate microbes. Controlling microbial growth is important in the medical field, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, academic research and food industry.

Why is microbial control necessary?

Controlling harmful microbes is essential to reduce the spreading of diseases, to facilitate the cleanliness of hospitals and public places, for the clean production and preparation of our food, the contamination-free operation of many industrial processes and preserving and improving the reliability and efficiency of machinery and transport.

Should we get rid of all microbes?

No. Some microbes cause disease in humans, plants and animals but most are harmless or even essential for a healthy life. We could not exist without them. For example, several vaccines that keep us from getting sick are made from bacterial toxins.

How does microbial control benefit me/society?

Microbial control technology is used extensively in products to protect them from microbial contamination that can spoil them, shorten their service life or in some way compromise their integrity. According to healthcare experts, infectious diseases caused by microbes are responsible for more deaths worldwide than any other single cause. It is thanks to modern microbial control techniques that we are increasingly able to help protect ourselves, and much of the environment in which we live.

Are microbial control products safe?

Although many of the substances used for microbial control purposes are regarded as hazardous, if handled with care and used according to the instructions on the packaging, they can be used safely to provide significant benefits. Microbial control technology has evolved considerably over recent years and the products used have to meet very strict safety and environmental standards.

Are microbial control products sustainable?

Yes. Microbial control technology is applied in a broad range of industrial applications, from controlling corrosion and enhancing the service life of machinery to safeguarding of fuel production and fuel efficiency. Advanced microbial control products are intended for recycling and reuse during a manufacturing process, thus minimizing waste and impact on the environment. The resulting decrease in energy and natural resource consumption has significant economic and social benefits. Making products better and longer lasting also contributes meaningfully towards sustainable production.

What are the current regulations covering microbial control products?

The use of microbial control products in Europe is strictly regulated under the EU Biocidal Products Regulation (EU BPR).

What are the safeguards I need to take when I use products containing biocides?

Microbial control technology has evolved considerably over recent years, and antimicrobials are required to meet very strict safety and environmental standards. All biocidal products must receive an authorization before they can be made available on the market. The label on an approved product contains health and safety advice associated with the product. As long as the recommendations given on the product label are followed, the product is safe to use.

Has the widespread use of microbial control products, such as biocides, lead to the emergence or proliferation of harmful bacteria that are resistant to both biocides and antibiotics?

In 2009 the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) presented an Opinion on "Antibiotic Resistance Effects of Biocides"  

The Committee stated there was evidence that in situations in which biocides are used extensively and regularly at concentrations too low to kill bacteria, increased antimicrobial resistance can develop.

The SCENIHR concluded that more research is required to better understand the mechanisms of cross-resistance and the emergence of biocide-induced antibiotic resistance in different fields of application. Furthermore, standard methods need to be introduced to evaluate the ability of a biocide to cause or maintain antibiotic resistance.

SCENIHR stated that biocides are invaluable compounds that provide society with numerous benefits, and that they play an important role in the control of bacteria in a variety of applications. “They [biocides] are a precious resource that must be managed to avoid any loss in activity for as long as possible. Therefore, in order to preserve the role of biocides in infection control and hygiene, it is paramount to prevent the emergence of bacterial resistance and cross-resistance through their appropriate and prudent use.”

For more information on this topic please refer to the GreenFacts website on The Effects of Biocides on antibiotic resistance.