GreenSpace: Problems with a key hand-cleansing chemical

Posted: June 09, 2013

Think of all the things you've touched today - the door handles pulled, the elevator buttons pushed, the railings held, the coins counted. All of them were coated with germs. Afterward, so were your hands.

How often - and how thoroughly - did you wash them?

In the battle against bugs, we often turn to antibacterial products. But a key ingredient in many of them, triclosan, may have its own problems.

Triclosan, a type of chemical known as a chlorinated aromatic compound, has been linked with health issues, including hormone disruption. Many medical experts say it's no better than good old soap and water anyway.

Don't look to the government for help sorting this one out. The Food and Drug Admini- stration has had triclosan on its radar for more than three decades, but has never acted - to endorse the chemical or limit its use.

A draft plan for allowable chemicals in antibacterial soaps, devised in 1978, lists only alcohol and iodine.

The plan was never finalized. And in the ensuing 35 years, soaps containing triclosan have proliferated.

The FDA's latest consumer advisory does note it has no evidence that "triclosan in antibacterial soaps provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water."

"It's really frustrating. We're exposing ourselves and our kids to something that is really a stupid use of a chemical," said Mae Wu, a Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer who specializes in health issues.

The advocacy group filed a lawsuit in 2010, seeking to force the agency to make a final determination about triclosan. It's still in court.

(The FDA did decide one thing: not to allow the use of triclosan in "leave-on" products such as Purell and other sanitizer gels. Those generally contain alcohol instead.)

The soap industry lauds triclosan as safe and effective. "It kills germs on our skin that can make us sick," said Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the American Cleaning Institute, a trade organization. "It's a part of millions of daily hygiene routines."

But animal studies are troubling. They have found triclosan alters hormone regulation and, in rats, causes a decrease in sperm counts in males and earlier puberty in females. Fish exposed to triclosan weren't able to swim properly, perhaps due to weakened muscles. Other studies suggest it may interfere with immune functions, or be associated with food allergies.

The latest concern: Triclosan may contribute to antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Health groups focus on triclosan in soaps because of the frequent contact with skin. But it is also in numerous other products, from toothbrushes to toys, clothing to shower curtains. The intent is to inhibit the growth of fungi, mildew, and bacteria.

The Environmental Protection Agency allows those uses, but notes on its website, "given the rapidly developing scientific database for triclosan," it will revisit the issue this year, a decade earlier than originally planned.

Triclosan is already in us: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists found it in the urine of 45 percent of people tested.

And it's in our environment, perhaps not surprising, as we rinse it down our drains. Although wastewater-treatment processes remove some of the chemical, residue has been found in rivers and on farm fields fertilized with sludge.

Some health organizations urge caution.

In 2012, the American Medical Association officially encouraged "the preferential use of plain soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitizers in health-care settings."

The Endocrine Society determined in 2009, "even if some health effects are not fully proven scientifically, taking precautions is wise."

It urged consumers to avoid triclosan - listed on labels - especially if they were pregnant or had small children; developing organs are more vulnerable.

In a nod to consumer peace of mind, Johnson & Johnson has announced a phaseout of triclosan. It says it is not in J&J baby products.

One thing everyone seems to agree on is the importance of washing your hands often enough and long enough to make a difference.

That would be 20 seconds, which the CDC says is the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice.


"GreenSpace," about the environment and health, alternates weekly with Art Carey's "Well Being" column.

Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Visit her blog: www.philly.com/greenspace.

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