Washing Our Hands of Toxic Triclosan
How a chemical that is toxic to humans and damaging to the environment has turned soap from cleaner to culprit.
By Peter Herring
It’s an especially endearing sight to see children washing their hands. As adults, we feel we are doing our job well, teaching a vital skill and keeping our children healthy. Hand washing is in the spotlight even more these days because of the H1N1 virus. We are admonished to wash our hands several times a day to help stop the spread of this disease, and all germs, to ourselves and others. Hand washing is reclaiming its vital role – first advocated in the 1800s in
Europe – as the first line of defense against disease transmission. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, “Handwashing is the single most important means of preventing the spread of infection.”
This is all to the good, of course, and would be a cause for celebration, were it not for an unnecessary ingredient that has turned many soaps from healthy to harmful – without providing much in the way of benefits. This chemical, triclosan, is a synthetic antimicrobial agent that in recent years has exploded onto the market in a wide variety of antibacterial soaps, deodorants, toothpastes, cosmetics, fabrics, plastics, and other products. Triclosan has even been found in the plastics used for children’s toys.
Triclosan by Any Other Name Is Still Triclosan
Where did triclosan come from and what was its original use? The Chemical company Ciba invented the chemical in the 1960s. It was first introduced in the health care industry in a surgical scrub kit in 1972. Over the last decade, though, there has been a rapid increase in the use of triclosan-containing products. According to the American Journal of Infection Control, nearly 100 percent of antibacterial liquid hand soaps found in the
U.S. contain triclosan. Antibacterial bar soaps sometimes contain a similar ingredient called triclocarban. (Triclosan also appears under the brand names, Irgasan DP-300, Lexol 300, Ster-Zac, Cloxifenolum, BioFresh, Microban.) All in all, the CDC found in 2000 that products containing antibacterial agents has escalated from a few dozen products in the mid-1990s to over 700 today.
It’s important to note that this growth in the use of triclosan is accompanied by opportunistic marketing that plays on the fear of the H1N1 virus, and the fear of germs in general – a fear that has itself been driven partly by marketing. So the question is, if the marketers are right that we are in an all-out war with germs, is triclosan helping us win?
The answer, in a nutshell, is No. Worse yet, triclosan is damaging to humans, the environment, and, ironically, its overuse may be contributing to the growth of super-resistant bacteria.
The Three Problems of Triclosan
The harmful effects of triclosan is threefold: in our bodies, our environment and in the way that it contributes to resistant bacteria – the so-called “superbugs” that are becoming a global problem.
The detrimental effects of triclosan begin at the skin, with reports of contact dermatitis after exposure; there is also evidence that triclosan may cause photoallergic contact dermatitis, producing an eczematous rash on the face, neck, the back of the hands and arms. The chemical is absorbed into our bloodstreams, with studies finding triclosan in three out of five human milk samples, and in the urine of about three-quarters of Americans. Triclosan is also lipophilic, a fancy term meaning that it is stored in fat cells so that concentration levels rise over time as exposure continues. Studies have suggested that elevated blood levels of triclosan may lead to central nervous system depression and impaired thyroid function, as well as hormone disruption. And, while triclosan has not been linked directly to cancer, the manufacturing process for triclosan may lead to the production of carcinogenic dioxins. Combining triclosan with chlorinated water or UV light, which occurs when using the public water supply, produces a specific type of dioxin which is particularly carcinogenic.
Triclosan may as well contribute to the problem of allergies. Driven by marketing messages that use fear of germs to sell products we may have actually become “excessively clean.” The “hygiene hypothesis,” proposed by British doctor David Stracham, states that problems like allergies, asthma, hayfever and eczema are caused by an immature immune system. Our immune system works by sampling the environment for small doses of potentially harmful substances such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, then developing antibodies to fend them off. By removing all exposure to potential pathogens through sanitation, our immune systems have no way to practice and instead turn on our own bodies. When that stimulus finally does arrive, the unprepared body overreacts and produces a huge response to tiny inputs. Recent studies have even shown that children raised on farms or with pets are far less likely to develop asthma, allergies, etc. than their deprived counterparts.
The second issue with triclosan is environmental. About 95% of the products which contain triclosan end up washed down the drain, eventually finding their way to our waterways and public water supplies. Water treatment plants don’t remove triclosan. Thirty-year-old sediment on river floors have turned up traces of triclosan, indicating that the chemical has underwater longevity. Triclosan is highly toxic to some types of algae and phytoplankton, which form the base of the aquatic food chain, and harmful to Japanese medaka fish. It also accelerates the rate at which tadpoles grow into frogs, and has been found in the blood of bottlenose dolphins. Because it is a contaminant in sewage sludge that is often spread on land, the chemical is now showing up in earthworms.
The third problem with triclosan is its contribution to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Laboratory studies have found a number of different strains of mutated bacteria that are resistant to the chemical. These studies found that these mutant strains of bacteria also showed resistance to certain antibiotics. While most resistant bacteria grow more slowly than sensitive bacteria, E. coli strains that are resistant to triclosan actually have increased growth rates. In a recent review of the subject, one researcher concluded, “It is therefore quite possible that widespread use of triclosan may indeed compound antibiotic resistance.”
Closing the Door on Triclosan
With all these detrimental effects, you might assume that the benefits of triclosan must be exceptional, else why risk the harm it causes? Yet no scientific studies back up the effectiveness of triclosan in fighting bacteria or contributing to stopping the spread of disease. According to the American Medical Association, “Despite their recent proliferation in consumer products, the use of antimicrobial agents such as triclosan in consumer products has not been studied extensively. No data exist to support their efficacy when used in such products or any need for them…”
A 2005 Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel concluded that triclosan soaps are no more effective than washing hands with soap and water. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that children wash their hands several times a day for 20 seconds or the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. According to CDC, hands should be washed: before preparing or eating food; after going to the bathroom; after changing diapers; before and after tending to someone who is sick; after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; after handling an animal or animal waste; after handling garbage; before and after treating a cut or wound.
So when it all comes out in the wash, it seems that the real epidemic we’re facing is the spread of dirty chemicals masquerading as cleaning agents. And in a way, that’s good news, because we can do something about it. We can simply say no to triclosan, refusing to buy the products that employ it – including those that disguise it with brand names. And we can begin to demand of our lawmakers and protective agencies that they do a better job in regulating – or eradicating – chemicals that do far more harm than good. That way, we can all enjoy a cleaner, healthier world and future.
Peter Herring is a freelance writer who covers health, lifestyle and technological topics.
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