In December of last year it was reported that triclosan and triclocarban, the main ingredients in anti-bacterial products such as hand sanitizers, is suspected of being dangerous to human health by the US FDA.
After years of mounting concerns that the antibacterial chemicals that go into everyday items like soap and toothpaste are doing more harm than good, the Food and Drug Administration said on Monday that it was requiring soap manufacturers to demonstrate that the substances were safe or to take them out of the products altogether (NY Times).
After a bit of my own research, I found that the term “mounting concerns” is putting it lightly.
If you’ve never heard of these chemicals, pay attention- the number of products they’re in is staggering. They’re used not only in the obvious places such as anti-bacterial hand sanitizers, but also soaps (liquid and bar), detergents, deodorants, toothpastes, cosmetics, and fabrics. It’s also added to kitchen cutting boards and shoes to kill bacteria and fungus and prevent odor (see safecosmetics.org for more info). What’s even more fun is that the these chemicals enter directly into ours, and our children’s bodies, via its inclusion in mouthwash and baby pacifiers.
The chemicals were originally used by surgeons to disinfect their hands before operations. It makes perfect sense that doctors would need such chemicals to prep for safe medical procedures. But once big business got its hands on it, its use by consumers exploded.
Now for the scary part- here’s what researchers have determined. The NY Times reports that there is a risk that the chemicals scramble hormones in children and promote drug-resistant infections (also see The Natural Resources Defense Council website), among other things.
Studies indicate that use of triclosan “provides a suitable environment for the emergence of antimicrobial drug-resistant bacteria, even at low concentrations,” which means that we’ve given these bugs the chance to demonstrate evolution before our very eyes (see safecosmetics.org). When you expose a population of bacteria to something lethal to it, there will inevitably be a tiny portion of that population that develops a mutation giving it immunity to that lethal drug. Over time, the ones that die are replaced by the ones that survive, hence drug-resistant bacteria. We’ve been overusing these products, and this is the result. Triclosan-resistant strains of microorganisms such as E-coli and Salmonella have already been identified, and we know both can be deadly to humans.
The chemicals also accumulate in ground water and soil, and one study of human breast milk found the chemicals in the milk of 97 percent of the women tested (NY Times). Triclosan has also been found in umbilical cord blood of infants, which raises concerns for the developing fetus during vulnerable periods of development (safecosmetics.org).
Such chemicals hurt other living things, too, a fact that should not be overlooked. Triclosan is toxic to algae, which in turn makes it toxic to aquatic ecosystems as a whole, as these ecosystems depend on algae in the food chain. And there is evidence that it is accumulating at high levels in fish and other aquatic life (safecosmetics.org).
The FDA knew of these findings since the 1970’s, yet has done nothing until now. The Natural Resources Defense Council is the group who finally forced the FDA to act (yay for activism!) So here’s what’s happening right now:
The F.D.A. said that accumulated scientific information has prompted it to re-evaluate whether these chemicals are safe when used over long periods of time. The agency also said there was no evidence that the substances were any more effective in preventing infection than plain soap and water.
The proposed rule does not require producers of the soaps to take them off the market immediately. The F.D.A. has given companies a year to produce data showing that the chemicals are both safe and effective. If they cannot prove, the chemicals will need to be removed from the products, the agency said. The rule is open for public comment for 180 days. It does not apply to hand sanitizers, which will be considered separately (NY Times).
The question now is what will happen next. Will the companies who make these products actually admit that they are harmful, or will they simply use their billions to find a way out of this, perhaps by rigging lab tests or hiring high-paid lawyers to find loop-holes in FDA rules? I can’t see organizations like The Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as others determined to protect the public, take any defeat lying down. They’ve been working on this for decades. We, the public, must aid their efforts.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for the chemicals mentioned here, as well as anything that says “anti-bacterial” on the label.