Triclosan: What the EPA and FDA Think You Should Know

Previously I wrote about an effort by two organizations - Beyond Pesticides and Food & Water Watch - to get the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate Triclosan, a little-known but extremely ubiquitous antimicrobial used in many household products. The EPA reviewed the petition and was supposed to release their results a few months ago but never did. Now Triclosan is back in the news because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been evaluating its safety.

Triclosan is the antibacterial part of antibacterial hand soap. It was developed as a surgical scrub in the 1940s but is now used in lots of products to stop the growth of bacteria, fungus and mildew as well as to deodorize. Triclosan is in just about everything (including many of us) and it has been listed as a possible endocrine disruptor.

According to the petition filed by the groups:

In spite of its unintended consequences as an endocrine disruptor in frogs and rats, as well as its ability to encourage antibiotic resistance, the FDA is apparently not quite willing to consider a ban. According to the FDA, “Triclosan is not currently known to be hazardous to humans. But several scientific studies have come out since the last time FDA reviewed this ingredient that merit further review.”

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 [EPA] 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.

In spite of its unintended consequences as an endocrine disruptor in frogs and rats, as well as its ability to encourage antibiotic resistance, the FDA is apparently not quite willing to consider a ban. According to the FDA, “Triclosan is not currently known to be hazardous to humans. But several scientific studies have come out since the last time FDA reviewed this ingredient that merit further review.” The agency also says, “FDA does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain Triclosan at this time.” They say they will release their findings to the public in the winter of 2012. The FDA previously confirmed Colgate’s claim that Triclosan in Colgate Total effectively fights gingivitis but they aren’t necessarily sold on the efficacy of Triclosan in hand soaps and body washes (we in this office aren’t either so we use regular soap and water).

Regulation of Triclosan can be a little confusing. It’s regulated by the EPA as a pesticide, by the FDA as a drug or cosmetic and by the Consumer Product Safety Commission as a consumer product not regulated by the FDA. It’s 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, Farberware® Microban® knives and cutting boards, Merrell® shoes and Biofresh® socks.

Triclosan is one of a class of substances known as “emerging contaminants” – detectable but currently unregulated and frequently untreated contaminants found in water and wastewater. Many of these substances are produced by industrial and agricultural processes and end up in our waterways and they include:

  • Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs);
  • Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs);
  • Organic wastewater contaminants (OWCs);
  • Persistent organic pollutants (POPs);
  • Contaminants of emerging concern (CECs);
  • Microconstituents; and
  • Nanomaterials.

While there is not sufficient evidence to indicate whether many of these compounds are a threat to human health and the environment, there are numerous programs underway at the state and federal level to evaluate the risks.

Ecocentric blog will take a look at emerging contaminants in several upcoming posts, exploring their impacts on the environment as well as suggesting ways to minimize contributions and risks. In the meantime, start reading the product labels on the items you buy so you can learn about what you're bringing into your environment. You can also purchase products from manufacturers who have made a commitment to exclude Triclosan from their products.

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[Check out these FDA and EPA facts sheets about Triclosan.]

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