In Summary:
Earlier this month, Healthy Building Network and the architecture firm Perkins+Will released the outcome of a year’s worth of research on the topic of antimicrobials in building products.  After reviewing statements made by several government agencies, scientific and research publications, and claims made about individual products, Healthy Environments: Understanding Antimicrobial Ingredients in Building Materials concludes that there remains no evidence that the use of antimicrobial building products has any benefit to human health, and that these products should be avoided whenever possible.

In Detail:
The issue of antimicrobials is a complicated one.  Healthy Environments: Understanding Antimicrobial Ingredients in Building Materials explores why that is in detail (don’t forget to check out the appendices!), but here are some important take-aways:

Most importantly, antimicrobials are pesticides and can be hazardous to people and planet.

Beyond that, you should know that there are two types of antimicrobial building products: those that aim to prevent the spread of infectious disease, and those that act as preservatives to prevent products from spoilage during their storage.

Building products that use antimicrobial additives in an effort to prevent the spread of contagious diseases have to supply the Environmental Protection Agency with data to show that their product does in fact kill targeted microbes when tested in a laboratory.  However, there remains no evidence that this ability to kill microbes translates to a real world public health benefit.  Even in a hospital setting, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance that hospitals not include antimicrobial products as part of their infection control programs.  Most recently, after nearly 40 years of review, the Food and Drug Administration cited a lack of evidence that antimicrobials provided a benefit as the rationale for a ban of antimicrobial additives in hand washes and soaps in 2016.  

On the other hand, building products that include antimicrobials as preservatives are not designed to keep us from getting sick.  The antimicrobial is only present to protect the product from decay or discoloration during storage or use. These products are not reviewed by EPA, but are prevented by law from advertisements suggesting they providing a benefit to our health.  But, this is a gray area legally, and misleading claims are definitely out there.  Now that you’re savvy, you may start to notice a lot of fine print on product labels!

The good news is that you don’t have to be a scientist to make good decisions about antimicrobial products.  

Because products using preservatives can not protect our health, and no evidence suggests products claiming to protect us from infection actually do, we can successfully navigate this issue by just avoiding products advertising an antimicrobial property altogether.

This approach saves time, may save money, and prevents the inclusion of unnecessary pesticides in our built environments.