Florescent Pink Goo
If you want to stay healthy, wash your hands but stay away from Triclosan. That’s the verdict of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose position is that hand-washing is one of the most critical strategies “in managing disease outbreak.” That’s because we can pass pathogenic viruses and bacteria to each other with our hands and then infect ourselves when we rub our eyes, touch our mouth, or pick our nose.
Given our lowered resistance to superbugs (read: the misuse and abuse of antibiotics), the proliferation of fear-based marketing tactics, and the fact that lethal pandemics are now a scary and very real possibility, it’s no wonder that antibacterial agents have become the most popular way we scrub and soothe away our neuroses.
In the past decade, sales of antibacterial products have soared. Antibacterial soaps are now a common part of common sense hygiene routines in homes, hospitals, doctors’ offices, daycare centers, nursing homes, and countless other office and institutional settings.
Since their introduction, upwards of 1,000 antimicrobial and antibacterial consumer products have reportedly been introduced to the market. According to Dr. Joseph Mercola, we’re talking about a $16 billion a year industry. Some 72 percent of all liquid soaps sold in the United States now contain antibacterial ingredients.
Given this factoid, it’s no surprise that I bumped into a bottle in the bathroom of a nearby lounge, just hours after signing up for this story. It was hard to miss. The words “Antibacterial Soap” emblazoned proudly on the plastic; the florescent liquid screaming out for attention. Even though I significantly cut my own germ exposure when I resolved to stop shaking hands in 2009 (germs are not the only reason I gave up this custom), I still feel compelled to wash, even when the soap looks like pink plutonium goo.
I obediently scrubbed my hands as I recited my ABCs. Incidentally, the gold standard when washing is to do it vigorously while singing this ditty, which is about 15 to 20 seconds long. But I’ve also heard that a mere two verses of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” will do the trick.
My hands immediately felt like scouring pads, dehydrated, and yucky. Surely this wasn’t “healthy”?
Scientists around the world maintain that products meant to keep us free of dirt and disease are actually causing us more harm than good. It’s pretty twisted stuff, and it’s time to wipe the slate clean and set the record straight.
Trouble With Triclosan
Today, more than 75 percent of liquid soaps and nearly 30 percent of bar soaps (45 percent of all the soaps on the market) contain some type of antibacterial ingredient, explains Rebecca Sutton, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Environmental Working Group. The most common agent found is triclosan (and its cousin triclocarban). It’s in nearly half of all commercial soaps.
According to a national survey, triclosan and triclocarban were detected in 76 percent of liquid soaps and 29 percent of bar soaps. And that was nearly 12 years ago.
But what is triclosan exactly? According to the David Suzuki Foundation, this chlorinated aromatic compound is one of a “dirty dozen” chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency first marketed triclosan in 1969 as a pesticide, said Dr. Allison E. Aiello, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Aiello should know; she spent several years partaking and conducting nearly two dozen triclosan-related studies.
Because of its antibacterial activity, triclosan was introduced for use in hospitals and health care settings in 1972. And within that realm it has a purpose. For instance, following the successful control of MRSA outbreaks in several clinical settings, showering or bathing with 2 percent triclosan became a recommended regimen for patients whose skin carried methicillin-resistant Staphylococcusaureus (MRSA).
But then in the ’90s, things got a little nutty! Triclosan seeped away from health care settings and started showing up everywhere – in laundry soaps, body washes, toothpastes, dishwashing liquids, deodorants, lotions, mouthwash, antiperspirants, cosmetics, clothing, kitchenware, furniture, plastic toys, high-chair food trays, socks, underwear, sheets, pillowcases, gym benches, and cutting boards. Oh my! (This interactive tool provides an idea of the number of different products that may contain triclosan.)
“Today even steering wheels in Japanese cars are impregnated with the stuff,” said Dr. Stuart Levy, a microbiologist, physician, and director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University School of Medicine.
Proliferation In Plastics
Nearly 5 million bacteria have been known to live on a single disposable wet razor handle, reads a press release issued by Microban International, Ltd.
Of course they want to infect us with fear. This company touts itself as a “global leader in built-in antimicrobial product protection.” They engineer “durable antimicrobial solutions for consumer, industrial, and medical products around the world.”
Due to the increases in the number of HAIs and concerns related to the spread of pandemics such as swine and avian flu, triclosan is now being used in medical implants and biomedical devices. Last year, Companies and Markets News predicted that by the year 2017, the global market for health care antimicrobial plastics will reach 221,758 metric tons. And many big companies are in on the action, including the chemical giants BASF and Bayer. What does this do to people and the planet?
“The basic premise is it helps, but in reality, it’s just a marketing ploy,” said Levy, who is also the board chairman of Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics and founder and a past president of the American Society for Microbiology. Yet every year, approximately 1 million pounds of triclosan is produced in the United States.
Here are several reasons why this just shouldn’t be so.
According to some scientists, there is actually evidence that antibacterial products function like antibiotic drugs. Ironically, this means they catalyze the development of dangerous resistant bacteria.
In 1998, a group of scientists including Levy studied triclosan’s effect on E. coli bacterium. According to their findings, published in Nature, they identified bacterial genes which, when mutated, made microbes resistant to triclosan. Incidentally, the chemical kills bacteria by blocking synthesis of lipids, or fatty molecules.
“What this says is that triclosan is in a sense an antibiotic, and what people are doing is spreading (it) around … in a healthy household,” said Levy, who discovered the mechanism for tetracycline resistance (efflux) and was among the first to document the transfer of drug resistance among animals and humans.
“Researchers have not yet proven conclusively that triclosan-resistant bacteria are developing in homes and hospitals, but this is an all-too-common phenomenon for pesticides and antibiotics in general.”
According to Levy, the only legitimate household use of antibacterial agents like triclosan is during the convalescence of a sick person released from the hospital.
Imagine the repercussions when you consider that these products have been repetitively used during lifetimes over the last 40 years by innumerable people? Tests show that triclosan and triclocarban used 45 years ago is still present today in U.S. sediments.
Exposure to antibacterial agents makes children more prone to a wide range of food and environmental allergies, according to new research from Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. In the study, those with the highest urine levels of triclosan had the highest levels of food IgE antibodies, and therefore the highest allergy risk, compared with children with the lowest triclosan levels.
Meanwhile, a 2006 study of frogs showed that “this pesticide perturbs a fundamental thyroid hormone signaling mechanism that is nearly identical to that of humans.” That’s according to Sutton. Low levels of triclosan in combination with thyroid hormones triggered accelerated transformation of tadpoles into frogs. Triclosan, in concentrations lower than one part per billion (as commonly measured in U.S. streams) interfered with the timing of expression of thyroid-regulated genes crucial to a frog’s early development.
“Thyroid hormones are critical for normal growth and development of humans as well,” Sutton adds. “The developing brain of a child is particularly vulnerable to damage caused by disruption of the thyroid system.” A number of studies on rats also indicate thyroid or sex hormone disruption.
In 2012, UC Davis researchers exposed cells derived from human hearts to quantities of triclosan similar to the amounts people use on a regular basis. They concluded that triclosan “weakens cardiac and skeletal muscle contractility in a manner that may negatively impact muscle health, especially in susceptible populations.”
They also tested triclosan on the hearts of mice. Within an hour of exposure, heart function was reduced by 25 percent. The mice’s gripping strength also dropped by 18 percent within the same time period.
“We have shown that triclosan potently impairs muscle function by interfering with signaling between two proteins that are of fundamental importance to life,” the study’s lead author Isaac N. Pessah said. “Regulatory agencies should definitely be reconsidering whether it should be allowed in consumer products.”
‘Cleaning’ Hands, Polluting Waters
The EPA estimates that 1.5 trillion gallons of pollutants leak into our groundwater each year. This includes chemicals from antimicrobial products that come from home and hospital.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that about 75 percent of triclosan and triclocarbon compounds we flush down the drain survive treatment at sewage plants. Since septic tanks need oxygen and bacteria to operate, they may likely fail altogether.
Even scientists in Europe fear the dangers of triclosan. According to researchers in Germany and Slovakia, triclosan is one of those “particularly harmful substances for the ecological status of rivers that are still not sufficiently monitored.” Exposed to water containing triclosan for seven days, minnows had “reduced swimming activity” compared to control groups.
Since these compounds live in our waterways and in sludge, they also spread to agricultural fields. Approximately 140,000 pounds a year of triclosan and 290,000 pounds a year of triclocarban are applied inadvertently to U.S. agricultural land as a result of sewage sludge disposal, adds Rolf Haden, associate professor in the department of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
This means these chemicals may also land on your plate. Triclosan can be detected not only in organisms living in wastewater, but also in human plasma and in breast milk. Therefore, harmful effects extending beyond water organisms cannot be excluded.
The Suds Of Soap
Soap-making had its humble beginnings with the Babylonians circa 2800 B.C. in what is now war-torn Syria. Most historians believe the process of soap-making emanated from the Levant region (of which Aleppo is a main city) before moving west to Europe following the first crusades. Or, at least, so says Ken McGowan, owner of Sinfully Wholesome Wild Crafted Soaps and Oils. Upset with the current state of soap, the Canadian traveled to Syria and studied the process from masters. He is now using a 2,000-year-old tradition with modern techniques to create soaps with no triclosan or artificial colorings, fragrances, flavors, parabens, or foam establishers.
People used to fashion their own soap from wood ashes, animal fats, and vegetable oils like palm and olive. “True” soaps, which is how the FDA describes them, are regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission and do not require ingredient labeling.
With World War I and the resulting shortages of fats and oils, people felt compelled to look for a replacement for soap, leading to the invention of synthetic detergents. One look at lather and makers knew it possessed the semblance of “cleaning action,” and the rest is history. Today, most body cleansers on the market are actually synthetic detergent products that come under the jurisdiction of the FDA.
A Dirty Ring
Despite growing concern and overwhelming evidence, the American Cleaning Institute informed the EPA in 2011 that “triclosan does not pose a risk to aquatic or terrestrial environments, nor does it pose a threat of accumulation in drinking water or food.”
“Additionally, based on extensive studies relevant to understanding the potential for triclosan to cause endocrine disruption in humans and aquatic animals, triclosan is not a cause of endocrine related effects at environmentally relevant concentrations,” they said. They affirm that all the research out there distorts real-world safety and everyday use based on “faulty comparisons to overdosed test subjects.”
Peculiar conclusions considering the ACI has spent a good chunk of their time recently focused on the environmental impact of soaps and detergents. Has the nonprofit been skimping out on reading? Or maybe they’re biased, since they represent household, industrial, and institutional cleaning products and their board members include employees from chemical giants such as Dow Chemical, Amway, S.C. Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Shell, and GOJO Global Group (makers of Purell).
Nonetheless Colgate Palmolive removed triclosan from its “Ultra-Palmolive Antibacterial” dish soap and Softsoap brand hand soaps. And this past August, Johnson & Johnson announced its plan to reformulate its products in order to phase out dangerous chemicals like triclosan, 1,4 dioxane, phthalates, and parabens.
Raise The Bar
Way back in 2007, in a study titled “Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or Just Risky,”Aiello concluded that soaps containing triclosan were no more effective than plain soap at preventing infectious illness symptoms and reducing bacterial levels on the hands. Meanwhile, the word “germ” may be a catch, but triclosan doesn’t kill viruses. “True” soap does eliminate viruses, however, with elegance, efficiency, and zero toxic chemicals.
“(Soap) doesn’t kill germs, but attaches to them and carries them away. Soap molecules have a head and tail, like sperm, but even smaller. The tail attaches to organic materials — oil, viruses, bacteria, fungi, dead skin — while the head keeps it afloat in the water. Together, soap molecules surround the materials they’ve attached to, making an impenetrable barrier while escorting the dirty stuff down the drain,” Aiello said. Triclosan may kill some of those bacteria (again, not the viruses). But as Aiello says, there’s no point, since the bacteria is already on its way down the sink.
If there is a shred of doubt, why are these products still being marketed? The simple fact is, America doesn’t operate under The Precautionary Principle. Our current system is set up to put profit over people and planet.
But I digress.
Since antibacterial soaps lack any real health benefits, and considering data demonstrating its potential risks, Aiello calls for further evaluation by governmental regulators regarding antibacterial product claims and advertising. This sentiment is echoed by at least 40 researchers from 13 universities and public institutions worldwide.
The EPA will re-review the chemical in 2013.
The FDA, meanwhile, claims it lacks sufficient safety evidence to recommend that consumers stop using triclosan-containing products. Nonetheless, the agency is reviewing the available evidence on triclosan and planned to communicate their findings to the public by winter 2012. So far, there’s been resounding silence — and based on the FDA’s track record, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The FDA first concluded that evidence for the safety and effectiveness of triclosan was lacking back in 1974, with its Tentative Final Monograph, explains Dr. Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Security at the Biodesign Institute. Despite hundreds of research studies documenting ineffective use, unnecessary human exposure, and widespread environmental contamination of soil, water, and air, consumption of triclosan and triclocarban continue to grow.
“Regulations are still lacking some 38 years later,” Halden said. “In the classroom and on Capitol Hill, I have trouble explaining this to my audience.”
Maryam Henein is an investigative journalist, professional researcher, and producer of the award-winning documentary Vanishing of the Bees.
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