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.

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