Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why and How to Avoid Triclosan

Truly "green" rubber gloves--no triclosan in these
I had purchased the same brand of rubber dishwashing gloves for years. When I needed a new pair I simply grabbed one at the grocery store, never paying any attention to the packaging. The last time I brought a new pair home, however, these words in small type in the corner of the box caught my eye: "Ultra-Fresh--Antimicrobial protection." 

As a rule, I avoid products marketed as "antimicrobial" or "antibacterial" because many of these contain triclosan. In fact, in turns out that "Ultra-Fresh" is a trade name for a triclosan additive.

What is Triclosan?

Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical found in thousands of consumer products, including soaps, dishwashing liquids, cosmetics, cutting boards, sponges, shoes, and toys. It is a pesticide. This ubiquitous chemical has adverse effects on our health and the environment, while at the same time being largely ineffective at what it is supposed to do. For example, the FDA and many other groups say there is no evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.

Health Effects

Triclosan is so prevalent in consumer products that a study by the Centers for Disease Control detected it in the urine of 75% of Americans aged 6 years and older. Triclosan is absorbed through the skin and the mouth when we use products containing the chemical.

Animal studies have shown that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor that can, among other adverse effects, decrease levels of a thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormones are critical to brain development and function, particularly in children. These studies, according to a 2010 letter by the FDA, "raise valid concerns about the effect of repetitive daily human exposure to these antiseptic ingredients." (A link to a PDF of the letter can be found in this article.)

More recently, a paper published this year found that triclosan impairs muscle function, including cardiac muscle function, in both humans and animals.

Finally, some studies have raised the possibility that triclosan contributes to making bacteria resistant to antibiotics! Products marketed as protecting us from bacteria may actually be helping to breed drug-resistant bacteria or "superbugs."

Environmental Effects

Most of the vast quantities of consumer products containing triclosan get washed down our drains and end up in our waterways. Triclosan is one of the most frequently detected chemicals, at some of the highest concentrations, in U.S. streams. One reason that this is a cause for concern is that triclosan may react with UV rays to produce low levels of dioxin, a highly toxic substance. Furthermore, triclosan is toxic to various types of algae, making it it a potential disruptor of aquatic ecosystems.

 Triclosan is also discharged into the ocean. A 2009 study found traces of triclosan in the blood of bottlenosed dolphins tested off the coasts of South Carolina and Florida. The triclosan was found in their blood in concentrations known to disrupt the hormones, and growth and development, of other animals. Scientists called the accumulation of triclosan in these wild marine mammals--top level predators in the food chain--a worrisome finding, because it demonstrates that the chemical is building up in the ocean's food web.

Avoiding Triclosan

The bottom line is that the use of triclosan in consumer products is a marketing gimmick that poses a whole host of threats to our health and to the environment, while at the same time providing no real benefit whatsoever. My rubber gloves are a good example of how prevalent this unnecessary chemical is. What possible good could be derived from adding this chemical to rubber gloves?

How to avoid it:
  • Read labels: Antibacterial soaps and body washes, toothpastes and cosmetics are regulated by the FDA. If these products contain triclosan, it will be listed as an ingredient on the label. 
  • Stay away from other products labeled "antibacterial" or "antimicrobial," such as cutting boards, towels, yoga mats, shoes, clothing, towels, bedding and toys. These items may also be labeled with terms such as "fights germs," "protection against mold," "odor-fighting," or other similar claims.
Finally, I was happy to find a safe and eco-friendly alternative to my triclosan-laced rubber gloves. The gloves pictured at the top of this post are made by a company I really like: If You Care. They are made from Fair Trade Forest Stewardship Council certified natural rubber. And I found them at my local Giant Eagle.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cough and Cold Relief for Kids (and Grown-ups, Too)

We are well into the season for colds and coughs; our family has already suffered from one bout with a nasty cold. I thus wanted to share some remedies that gave us relief from some of our symptoms.

My daughter is still at an age where it is not safe to give her over the counter (OTC) cold and cough medications. The FDA strongly recommends that children under 2 not be given OTC cough and cold products at all. It is still studying the safety of these products for kids ages 2 to 11, and thus has not issued a recommendation regarding kids in this age group. In addition to potentially dangerous drugs, most conventional cough and cold products for kids also contain things like artificial dyes, artificial sweeteners and harmful preservatives that I want to avoid.

We had good results from two chest rub products that we tried. My daughter was able to sleep through the night despite having a persistent cough during the day with each of these products. Badger Aromatic Chest Rub is certified organic and contains essential oils of eucalyptus, peppermint, rosemary and tea tree in an olive oil and beeswax base (it smells really good).

We also tried another rub that worked well for her: Maty's All Natural Baby Chest Rub (even though she is no longer a baby). This also contains essential oils, including eucalyptus, lavender and chamomile, in a sunflower and coconut oil base. Maty's also makes an All Natural Vapor Rub to be used by anyone age 2 and up.

I purchased the Badger Chest Rub at Whole Foods and the Maty's at the South Hills Giant Eagle Market District.

It is important to me that these ointments don't contain the potentially harmful ingredients found in more popular products, such as Vicks VapoRub. The camphor in the Vicks product can be toxic if it is absorbed through mucous membranes or broken skin. VapoRub also contains turpentine oil, which is not safe for children or people with lung problems, including asthma. Finally, it also contains petrolatum, a petroleum product which I prefer to avoid.

In addition to these products, I also gave her teaspoons of honey to mitigate her cough. Several studies (including this one, and one here) have demonstrated that, in addition to soothing a sore throat, honey may be an effective cough suppressant. Remember: never give honey to infants under one year of age; in rare cases it can cause infantile botulism.

The combination of one of the above chest rubs and honey worked really well for us. What do you use to treat your family's colds?