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From the Archives: Antibacterial Atrocity

09/22/2009

Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical found in many consumer products. It’s nearly always found in liquid hand soap and dishwashing detergent, and is also a common ingredient in toothpaste, facewash, deodorant, a host of personal care products, and even mattresses, toothbrushes, towels, plastic food storage containers, flooring, carpet and shoe insoles – things that may be labeled “antibacterial,” or make claims such as “odor-fighting” or “keeps food fresher, longer.”

A U.S. FDA advisory committee has found that household use of antibacterial products provides no benefits over plain soap and water, and the American Medical Association recommends that triclosan not be used in the home, as it may encourage bacterial resistance to antibiotics. Read ingredient labels or use Skin Deep to find products free of triclosan and triclocarban, its chemical cousin. Forgo antibacterial soap.


Triclosan is linked to liver and inhalation toxicity, and low levels of triclosan may disrupt thyroid function. Reports have suggested that triclosan can combine with chlorine in tap water to form chloroform gas which the EPA classifies as a probable human carcinogen. Triclosan reacts with the free chlorine in tap water to also produce lesser amounts of other compounds, like 2,4-dichlorophenol. Most of these intermediates convert into dioxins upon exposure to UV radiation (from the sun or other sources). Although small amounts of dioxins are produced, there is a great deal of concern over this effect because some dioxins are extremely toxic and are very potent endocrine disruptors. They are also chemically very stable, so that they are eliminated from the body very slowly (they can bioaccumulate to dangerous levels), and they persist in the environment for a very long time.


In one study, recently accepted for publication in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives and made available online, Isaac Pessah, PhD, director of the U.C. Davis Children’s Center for Environmental Health, looked at how triclosan may affect the brain. Pessah’s test-tube study found that the chemical attached itself to special “receptor” molecules on the surface of cells. This raises calcium levels inside the cell. Cells overloaded with calcium get overexcited. In the brain, these overexcited cells may burn out neural circuits, which could lead to an imbalance that affects mental development. Some people may carry a mutated gene that makes it easier for triclosan to attach to their cells. That could make them more vulnerable to any effects triclosan may cause.

Wastewater treatment does not remove all of the chemical, which means it ends up in our lakes, rivers and water sources. That’s especially unfortunate since triclosan is very toxic to aquatic life.  A 2006 study concluded that low doses of triclosan act as an endocrine disruptor in the North American bullfrog. The hypothesis proposed is that triclosan blocks the metabolism of thyroid hormone, because it chemically mimics thyroid hormone, and binds to the hormone receptor sites, blocking them, so that normal hormones cannot be utilized. Another 2009 study demonstrated that triclosan exposure significantly impacts thyroid hormone concentrations in the male juvenile rats. Triclosan has also been found in both the bile of fish living downstream from waste water processing plants and in human breast milk!

The negative effects of Triclosan on the environment and its questionable benefits in toothpastes has led to the Swedish Naturskyddsföreningen to recommend not using triclosan in toothpaste. Triclosan is used in many common household products including Clearasil Daily Face Wash, Dentyl mouthwash, Dawn, the Colgate Total range, Crest Cavity Protection, Softsoap, Dial, Right Guard deodorant, Sensodyne Total Care, Old Spice, Mentadent, and Bath & Body Works hand sanitizers.

Experts in the food industry and health organizations suggest the alternative to using antibacterial formulas is washing your hands often (especially out in public, after using restrooms, and around sickness), briskly rubbing soap in your hands for 20+ seconds under the hottest water you can bear.

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