The Yankees' anti-microbial locker room.

Health and medicine explained.
April 16 2009 6:58 AM

America's Clean Team

If the Yankees' anti-microbial locker room is such a breakthrough, why aren't hospitals using it?

Say you just invented a surefire way to kill 99.9 percent of the bacteria, viruses, and fungi that dwell on surfaces like tabletops and doorknobs. Would you sell your product to medical centers, where an estimated 100,000 people die annually from hospital-acquired microbes? Or would you instead approach the New York Yankees and help them develop the "first antimicrobial Major League Baseball facility"?

If you're the Coatings Specialist Group, the answer is easy. The self-proclaimed "world leader in sustainable, environmentally beneficial surface treatments" sold the Yankees on the idea of going clean using its Sports Antimicrobial System in their spankin'-new stadium.

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In recent years, MRSA (drug-resistant Staphylococcus), creepy molds, and various other superbugs have inched their way out of dreary microbiology texts and onto ESPN and the pages of Sports Illustrated as players have missed substantial amounts of playing time due to infected wounds. Even the New England Journal of Medicine tackled the topic in a February 2005 article (complete with a drawing of a football field) describing an outbreak of MRSA among the St. Louis Rams. Since then, additional reports from various teams ranging from Little League to the pros have further highlighted the phenomenon. CSG claims that its SportsAide (a durable surface treatment) and FabricAide (some sort of high-end laundry detergent) will help shield the Yankees from the Murderer's Row of microbes.

As an infectious-disease specialist who has spent a career trying to prevent these same hospital-acquired infections, I was a bit surprised at the news. If it's this easy to banish bacteria from the House That Ruth Rebuilt, can't those same CSG guys come to my hospital, coat whatever they coat, and lay waste to my hospital microbes, too? After all, we all end up in the hospital sooner or later: Today's energetic CSG salesperson is tomorrow's inpatient.

Apparently not. So how did the Yankees get to the front of the line? I can think of only three explanations: a) The company figured there was more money to be made selling the package to sports teams that follow a cash-and-carry business model and work in places that are fun to visit; b) the company does want to help hospitals, but the regulatory climate, the cost of conducting studies, and the basic Debbie Downer tone of working in a hospital are just too debilitating for any sane person; or c) the product just doesn't work that well.

The answer is all of the above. Regarding a), well, one ought never to vote against the profit motive. As for b), CSG's Web site lists health care as a priority and mentions an old study from a flooded hospital in Malaysia, but having a medical center as a client must not be very appealing: American hospitals are simultaneously frantic and incredibly dull—and they don't come with fan bases. I don't blame CSG or any other company for running the other way.

It's c) that I worry about. To my eye, both the "disease" (the clear and imminent danger to our Bronx Bombers) and the cure (SAS) seem like horseshit, the latest entries in the proud American tradition of quackery. Not that this is a surprise: Among other bad national habits (cigarettes, alcohol, celebrities, subprime mortgages), we are addicted to snake oil.

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