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What is Microban and Why is it in My Kid’s Lunch Bag?

My friend Tamara, creator of MISLEAD: America's Secret Epidemic (a documentary about lead poisoning), posted the picture you see above on Facebook the other day.  She was excited to find a lunch bag that was officially PVC, phthalate and lead-free.  And for good reason – it's hard to find products without toxic chemicals.

But the “ulra safe” and “worry-free” claims weren't completely justified.  We still have one thing left to worry about:  Microban.  I don't like shedding a questionable light on products like this, because the manufacturer has gone the extra mile to make it safer.   But it's more important to make informed decisions, right?

Microban is, uh, hmmm…

Microban is a “proprietary” mix of chemicals that may contain Triclosan.  I've grown to despise that word.

Most folks assume that these chemicals are meant to protect them from harmful bacteria, but the purpose of Microban is really to protect the product from deterioration.  Microban's website makes it clear enough:

Built-in to products during the manufacturing process, Microban® antimicrobial product protection is engineered to protect products from bacteria, mold and in some cases algae that can cause stains, odors and product deterioration. Microban protection is not designed to protect users from disease causing microorganisms.

Well now, that's interesting, considering nearly every ad I see about products with “Microban Protection” makes me feel like it's there to protect me from germs…

The real problem is that we don't know which antimicrobial agent is being used in a given product.  And in my experience, most manufacturers haven't been willing to disclose what they're using.  So if it turns out to be Tricolsan, we have a whole slew of new concerns at hand.  Studies have increasingly linked triclosan to a range of health and environmental effects, such as skin irritation, allergy susceptibility, growth of drug-resistant bacteria or “superbugs.” dioxin contamination, hormone disruption and destruction of fragile aquatic ecosystems.

Also be aware that it's becoming more common to find Microban in kitchen products, like cutting boards, knives and sink drainers, as well as in school supplies like scissors and notebooks.

Don't be fooled by advertising gimmicks

You have a right to know whether a toxic chemical has been secretly added to the products your family uses every day.  So if you can't confirm which antimicrobial is being used, just don't buy it.

The NRDC suggests the following tips for avoiding hidden Triclosan:

  1. Avoid anything labeled “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” which contains triclosan or triclocarban, such as soaps, gels, cleansers, toothpaste, cosmetics and other personal care products.
  2. Avoid other “antibacterial” or “antimicrobial” items such as cutting boards, towels, yoga mats, shoes, clothing and bedding.
  3. Use regular castile soap and hot water to clean effectively. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizers when you don’t have access to running water.

P.S.  About that antimicrobial cutting board your're so fond of…  If you’re worried about contamination in your kitchen, don’t rely on a Microban-laced cutting board.  Your best bet is to use two cutting boards, keeping one for raw meat and one for all other foods.  You just don’t need Microban (or bleach, for that matter) to sanitize your cooking utensils and countertops when you have the almighty vinegar.   Vinegar is an effective natural disinfectant, and even kills both salmonella and E. coli, making it a valuable sanitizer in the kitchen.

Photo Source: Tamara Rubin