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Germ warfare in the toybox

The baby's fingers wrap deliberately around the toy, a "What is this?" look on her face. The fingers _ the same ones that were just grabbing the dog's tail, fluffing the dust bunnies under the end table and probing her dirty diaper _ hold the toy, and every parent knows exactly where it is going.

Into her mouth.

And along with it go germs, bacteria, perhaps even viruses, on the plastic toy and on the baby's hands. Stuff with rotten names like E. coli and hepatitis and strep, or the common cold virus.

A new process that binds an antibacterial chemical into plastic and other synthetic materials promises to help fight the spread of all the bad stuff kids may pick up from toys. Playskool has introduced a new line of toys with a substance known as Microban, which the company says can reduce the presence of bacteria more than 99 percent.

Although some doctors and researchers urge caution about the toys and similar products, there is no denying that our fear of infection has worked its way into our mass culture, with movies like Outbreak, and now into the mass business market.

From the now-common antibacterial soaps to new products such as toys, cutting boards, bed covers and more our obsession with cleanliness _ or perhaps our fear of disease _ a boom market has been created. More than 150 new antibacterial products have become available in the last year, and more are coming.

Such products have been used in hospitals and other settings for about 30 years. "They were originally developed for industrial uses in things like soaps," says Glenn Cueman, president of Microban Products Co., near Charlotte, N.C.

Microban developed a process that takes the chemical triclosan and weaves it into the empty spaces between molecules in plastics and other synthetics. Triclosan is the same chemical in some antibacterial soaps.

Microban's innovation was finding a way to make it work in a solid form. Essentially, the chemical prevents bacteria from penetrating cell walls, so it can't reproduce or grow, Cueman says.

"It makes them hostile to the growth of germs," says Cueman, who co-founded Microban in 1990.

Considering how most parents are obsessed with their children's health, toys might be the highest-profile use of Microban. Some of the Playskool toys will replace existing toys made without Microban, and cost about 5 to 10 percent more; some of the toys are new designs.

Microban and similar products also are showing up in such things as athletic wear, toilets and sinks, bathroom and kitchen textiles, storage containers, utensils and even pens (in case you start chewing on the same pen that a co-worker munched, too).

New sponges from 3M illustrate the benefits of such products. Sponges are a huge breeding farm for germs and bacteria, especially the feared salmonella and E. coli bacteria. Both can cause serious and sometimes fatal intestinal disorders.

A recent study collected more than 400 dish rags and sponges from four cities and found that almost one of four had salmonella or staphylococcus. 3M has marketed its O-Cel-O StayFresh sponges since 1994 and now has woven the antibacterial agent into its Scotch-Brite scrub sponges.

A University of Arizona researcher working for 3M collected dish rags and sponges from 100 homes in the Chicago area and found that 24 percent had E. Coli and staphylococcus, and that homes with contaminated rags and sponges were up to four times more likely to have bacterial contamination on countertops and tables where the sponges apparently were used to wipe the surface.

Is all this enough to make you dash out and buy this stuff?

"You give people a false sense of security," says Dr. Thomas Klein, professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

Klein says the larger public health concern isn't an infection that is passed from an object to a person, but from person to person.

That's why Dr. Patricia Emmanuel recommends that all of us get into a better habit of washing our hands frequently and thoroughly.

Emmanuel, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious disease at USF's College of Medicine, says viruses and bacteria can be transmitted from a toy to a child. Rather than relying on a high-tech material, Emmanuel says, "the No. 1 thing in disease prevention is effective hand-washing."