Critics say UA prof's germ work stokes fear

School, businesses alike capitalize on his anti-microbial findings
2011-05-24T14:00:00Z 2011-05-24T14:46:23Z Critics say UA prof's germ work stokes fearBy Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 24, 2011 2:00 pm  • 

Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.

Charles Gerba has become one of the University of Arizona's best-known scientists by leading industry-funded studies on a subject relevant to most everyone: where E. coli and other disease-causing microbes lurk in homes, offices and belongings.

But some critics and colleagues say that while Gerba's research is educational, it also contributes to misguided marketing campaigns that play into the public's fear of germs.

"There has been an unfortunate tendency on the part of the private sector to ride on this crest of germophobia," said professor Syed Sattar, director of the Center for Research on Environmental Microbiology at the University of Ottawa in Canada. "As researchers, we need to be a little more objective to say, yeah, these things are there, but if you are practicing regular hygiene, you can protect yourself."

UA rules prohibit faculty members from using their university affiliation to endorse products, but that hasn't stopped cleaner makers like The Clorox Co. and Gojo Industries from treating Gerba like a sponsor of their products.

A publication for Clorox employees, put out last year said: "We've also had great success working with noncelebrity spokespeople, including Dr. Charles Gerba from the University of Arizona."

It said that in 72 hours, 330 million people had read or heard of a Clorox-sponsored study by Gerba, a bonanza of "free media."

Gerba said he is not a Clorox spokesman and always tries to avoid recommending a product, even when on a media tour in New York City paid for by Clorox. While these studies of where germs flourish are only part of the research Gerba does, he said he finds them especially valuable.

"It's translating scientific stuff in journals which you would never read into something that might be practical to the public," he said. "I enjoy doing that. To me, I think we spend too much time in the ivory tower without trying to translate it into something the public could use."

Peers call him pioneer

Gerba, 65, labors in a small UA office with no windows, cheap furniture and cartoons about salmonella on the walls. He may dress sloppily and enjoy telling toilet jokes, but colleagues around the country refer to him with words like "predominant," "dean" and "pioneer" in the field of environmental microbiology.

Sattar has worked in the same field as Gerba for almost 40 years and, although he worries about the public's germophobia, he said Gerba has done groundbreaking research, especially in detecting the viruses in water supplies.

But that's not why you'll find Gerba in the news, often referred to as "Dr. Germ." Almost every day, some news organization cites Gerba's studies on where germs concentrate. The University of Arizona has taken advantage of Gerba's celebrity by trumpeting his findings as they come out.

Having a scientist in the spotlight helps market a university, said Annemarie Mountz, assistant director of public information at Penn State University.

"If you have a researcher who is creating new knowledge in an important area, it's good to have that person be out talking about his or her work," she said.

But the same marketing advantages that universities may find in professors like Gerba may be even more valuable to private companies, said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C.

"Companies have an interest and love to get academic scientists to represent their views," Jacobson said. "It gives credibility, because saying that something came from the University of Arizona sounds a lot more credible than 'a study sponsored by Clorox.' "

Did YouTube video

"Hi, I'm Dr. Chuck Gerba, an environmental microbiologist at the University of Arizona. You probably don't like the idea of putting 100 million fecal bacteria on your hands every time you wash them."

So begins a YouTube video Gerba did for Gojo Industries, the maker of Purell brand hand sanitizers. In the video, Gerba, wearing a white lab coat, reveals the results of a Gojo-funded study, in which his lab found bacterial contamination in about 25 percent of refillable soap dispensers.

"Some of the bacteria we found in refillable bulk soap containers are potentially capable of causing infections to certain groups of individuals, particularly young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems," Gerba says.

That's the kind of message that Neal Langerman objects to. Langerman, a San Diego chemical safety specialist, said Americans are too worried about germs - and companies play on that: "Raise the paranoia level and sell more sanitizers."

In its 2010 annual report, Clorox phrases the concept differently, saying its "Stop the Spread of Infection" campaign "will help grow our business" and "help change the world." Indeed, in the first quarter of 2011, sales by Clorox's cleaning-products division - the company's biggest segment - increased by 2.5 percent, "driven by increased shipments of disinfecting products to commercial and institutional customers; and several home-care products, including Clorox disinfecting wipes."

Gojo is a privately held company, so it isn't required to reveal sales information. In the Gojo video on contaminated soap dispensers, Gerba goes on: "Should we stop washing our hands? No. We need to wash our hands with soap from a sealed system."

In a separate YouTube interview on Gojo's Web page, Gerba says the "Sanitary Sealed system," a trademarked Gojo brand name, prevents contamination, unlike refillable soap containers.

University of Arizona faculty members may not endorse products using their university affiliation, said Leslie Tolbert, vice president for research at the university. After viewing the Gojo videos, she didn't see a problem with them.

"Dr. Gerba is not promoting a specific company's product," Tolbert said via e-mail. "He is restating his research findings that bleach helps kill germs and that factory-sealed soap is cleaner than refillable soap refilled by the end user."

Potential problems

Encouraging the use of anti-microbial cleaning products can cause several problems, experts said. For one it may spread the idea that bacteria shouldn't be there.

"They are ubiquitous," Sattar said. "Unless you live in some sort of a bubble, you cannot escape contact with bacteria."

Another is that some of the chemicals used in the products can be harmful, especially if used improperly, Langerman said. It's unnecessary to use bleach to clean floors, for example - in fact, that can irritate the upper-respiratory tract, he said.

Another possible problem is that trying to sterilize your environment could create its own vulnerabilities. For two decades, researchers have investigated the "hygiene hypothesis" - that too little exposure to microbes can lead to increased occurrence of allergies, asthma and related disorders in children.

Dr. Stuart Levy, a physician and researcher at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston, said common-sense cleaning is enough in homes where people are not sick with severe chronic diseases such as cancer or diabetes.

"In a healthy household," Levy said, "cleaning products that contain anti-bacterial substances are not needed."

In the long run, it's also possible that anti-bacterial cleaning products could lead to stronger germs, the same way overuse of antibiotics does, Levy said.

Gerba said he's seen no concrete evidence to support the hygiene hypothesis and believes that appropriate use of disinfecting wipes, for example, can help prevent the spread of disease.

"Even if it were true, I can't recommend exposing people to disease-causing organisms that could make them seriously ill or kill them," he said.

Not driven by money

What drives Gerba, he said, is not money - he doesn't get any extra for running the industry-funded research. It's the desire to educate the public and give his students experience and work.

"There's very little benefit for working with the news media, except I feel it's important with the kind of research we do," he said.

Gerba made a salary of about $104,000 this year.

His studies allow the prolific researcher to hire students to do laboratory work that can be useful and attractive for private industry.

"It's hard to get the kind of experience we provide," he said.

Gerba stays independent when doing industry-funded research, and that attracts funders, he said.

"I always have a job, however this comes out," Gerba said. "They trust me more for that reason."

Online: See a series of snippets by Gojo's CEO talking about Gerba's study.

Contact reporter Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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