A Ban on Triclosan? What the Heck is Triclosan? The EPA Takes Public Comments

Two organizations - Beyond Pesticides and Food & Water Watch - have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate triclosan. Like me, you may be saying to yourself, "What the heck is triclosan and why would someone want to ban it?"

Triclosan is the antibacterial part of antibacterial hand soap. It was developed as a surgical scrub but is now used in lots of products to stop the growth of bacteria, fungus and mildew and to deodorize. To a germophobe like me (excuse me - recovering germophobe) this sounds like a good idea. There are germs everywhere and on everything and everyone, and in my moments of crazy, everything is going to give me cancer (Riding the NYC subway? Cancer train.). So antibacterial soap just makes good, clean sense, right?

It turns out that triclosan is now in just about everything (including most of us) and it's having some unintended consequences.

According to the EPA's notice of the petition:

Triclosan is an antimicrobial substance used in pesticide products, hand sanitizers, toothpaste, and other consumer products. The petitioners claim that the 'pervasive and widespread use' of triclosan poses significant risks to human health and the environment. In addition, the petitioners claim that the agency failed to address the impacts posed by triclosan's degradation products on human health and the environment, failed to conduct separate assessments for triclosan residues in contaminated drinking water and food, and is complacent in seriously addressing concerns related to antibacterial resistance and endocrine disruption.

[By the way, the EPA is accepting comments about the petition, which must be received on or before February 7, 2011.]

I did a little research and the notice above doesn't do justice to how ubiquitous triclosan is. Earlier this year Congressman Ed Markey (D-Mass) sent a letter to major manufacturers asking them to stop putting triclosan in their products. According to Markey's factsheet:

Triclosan is in about 76% of liquid and 29% of bar soaps, and is also contained in personal care products such as toothpaste, cosmetics, facewash, and deodorant and household products such as countertops, textiles, and kitchenware. Popular items that contain triclosan include: Dial® liquid hand soap, antibacterial Softsoap®, Clearasil® face wash, Colgate Total® toothpaste, Reach® antibacterial toothbrush, Colgate Breeze® mouthwash, Right Guard® and Old Spice® deodorant, Faberware® Microban® knives and cutting boards, Merrell® shoes, and Biofresh® socks.

Still, what's the big deal? If it kills germs it can't be bad, right?

From Markey's factsheet:

In addition to the exposure obtained by direct ingestion (i.e. toothpaste) or absorption through the skin (i.e. soaps, lotions), the chemical also ends up in our lakes, rivers and drinking water sources because many of the products that contain triclosan end up being washed down the drain.

In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, triclosan was detected in the urine of nearly 75% of people tested. Also, in a United States Geological Survey study triclosan was detected in 60% of water samples from U.S. streams tested. And the effects of triclosan on human and environmental health are only just starting to be realized.

Studies have shown the following problems:

Endocrine Disruption: Triclosan may interfere with thyroid hormone function, which is vital for proper development of the brain and nervous system in infants and children and regulates energy balance in adults.

Antibacterial Resistance: According to the American Medical Association, frequent use of antimicrobial chemicals such as triclosan can increase bacterial resistance to therapeutic antibiotics. This can lead to infections that are not treatable using today's medications.

Environmental Toxicity: Triclosan has been shown to be toxic to fish and other aquatic animals and aquatic plants (not much of a surprise since it is designed to kill bacteria).

If you're wondering how something so wrong could seem so right to consumers, just look at how it's been handled by the regulatory agencies. Triclosan is regulated by the EPA as a pesticide, by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a drug or cosmetic and by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) as a consumer product not regulated by the FDA. There are a lot of possibilities for manufacturers to include this stuff in their products and how it's marketed has implications for its control. With the right marketing, we consumers are, literally, eating the stuff up.

Oh yeah, and the EPA "does not consider antibiotic resistance when setting limits of exposure through drinking water, and has not called for regulation or monitoring of triclosan in drinking water." So, more than likely it's in our drinking water (and that would include bottled water for all you tap water skeptics). Heck, triclosan is even in household dust.

Uff dah! Maybe exposure to a few germs isn't such a bad thing.

What can we, as consumers, do?

  • Buy products from manufacturers who have made a commitment to exclude triclosan from their stuff.
  • Read the labels of the products you buy and make a commitment to stop buying those with triclosan (it's also called Microban®, Irgasan® (DP 300 or PG 60), Biofresh®, Lexol-300, Ster-Zac or Cloxifenolum).
  • Send your comments to the EPA now, during the open comment period (on or before February 7, 2011).