Are Antibiotics and Disinfectants Losing Their Effectiveness? Well, Yes and No.

Before discussing the bigger question, here are five things that are critical to disinfectants of all types doing their job. Post this on every custodial closet wall in your building (see the link below for a free poster):

1. USE THE PRESCRIBED DWELL TIME

Whether a few seconds or a few minutes, all disinfectants must remain on the surface for at least the times they were tested and proven to work.

2. DILUTE THE PRODUCT CORRECTLY

The importance of automatic dilution systems is even more critical with disinfectants where not only in-use economy is affected, but safety and effectiveness as well.

3. THE SURFACE MUST BE CLEAN FIRST

A dirty surface is a nearly impossible to disinfect surface. If the surface is only modestly soiled, a cleaner/disinfectant can be effective.

4. KEEP THE WORKING SOLUTION CLEAN

Once the disinfectant becomes laden with soils, it loses effectiveness. Replace working solution as it darkens with soils. Best practice calls for keeping working solution separate from rinse water. 

5. KEEP TRACK OF "ACTIVE" and "SHELF" LIFE TIMES

Many disinfectants are effective for a certain time frame after dilution, called "active" life. Many disinfectants also have an expiration date, called "shelf" life, after which potency is not assured. Don't "top off" already mixed solutions. 

Download: 8.5" x 11" poster, Use Disinfectants More Effectively

Sometimes news about antibiotics, those medications taken internally to help cure a patient of a bacterially caused infection, is confused with that of disinfectants. Disinfectants are chemistries designed to kill microorganisms on surfaces and sometimes in the air. While both antibiotics and disinfectants are designed to promote health through reducing infection, where and how they work is quite different.

More info: 3 Ways Disinfectants Kill Germs

Near the end of the Civil War in 1865, principles of antisepsis were just beginning to take root in the United States. As late as the death of Civil War general and President, James Garfield, in 1881, sanitary handling of wounds was still widely ignored. Garfield, shot by an assassin, would likely have survived the bullet itself, but the fingers of 10 different physicians looking for the bullet caused septicemia, a poisoning of the blood, which killed him after months of agony.

Alexander Fleming, born the same year Garfield died, became interested in treating wounds during World War I. By then, carbolic acid was successfully used to sanitize surgery sites and tools before operations, but as a treatment for already open wounds, was not very effective. In addition to killing germs, the mild acid treatment also killed red blood cells and other agents produced by the body to fight infection in the wound. In fact this process, Fleming proved, actually worked in favor of the invading germs.

In this example, carbolic acid was a disinfectant, and not tailored to the needs of fighting infection already inside the body. Fleming went on, after years of experimentation, to develop the use of penicillin to fight infection in the body using entirely different principles than disinfection. 

So disinfectants and antibiotics have similar goals - to promote health. However, they are entirely different in function.

As front-line warriors in the battle against infection, cleaners can defeat the microbes that make humans sick much more easily and cost-effectively than doctors, who are tasked with fighting infection after it is already in a human host.

The reduction in effectiveness of antibiotics in fighting certain infections has been widely reported on. Selected microorganisms are adapting to antibiotic treatments generally through mutation - where the antibiotic mechanism is defeated by some protective measure the infecting agent adopts in the body. This process is sometimes confused with becoming resistant to disinfectants outside of the body which is not generally happening. According to Jamie King, of Hillyard Technical Service (PUR-O-ZONE is the Hillyard product line distributor for Kansas):

"...no scientific link has been established showing bacteria or viruses genetically mutate to form a resistance to [Quaternary Ammonium] -based disinfectants."

So in answer to the original question yes, some antibiotics are losing effectiveness. Generally speaking however, disinfectants - which operate differently from antibiotics and outside the body - are not losing effectiveness. And, some new technologies that are even safer to use and less straining to the environment have been created in the disinfectant world in recent years. So disinfectants are arguably at a peak of effectiveness in human history.