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Scan the ingredient list of many "antibacterial" soaps and body washes, and you'll find triclosan. This pesticide — yes, I said pesticide — is so widely used that it's now found in most of our bodies. And after decades of thinking about it, FDA is finally saying "enough."

It turns out some significant risks are linked to triclosan, including altering how hormones work in our bodies, undermining our immune systems and making bacteria resistant to antibiotics. Oh, and according to FDA experts, it doesn't seem to get hands or bodies any cleaner than good old soap and water.

Two things bubble up (sorry!) as most interesting to me about FDA's recent announcement. First, how commonsense it is: they'll be requiring manufacturers to prove their soapy pesticide products — which carry known risks — work better than regular soap and water. Or they'll be off the shelves. What a good idea!

And second, that it's taken much, much too long to take this simple step — 42 years, to be precise.

Back in 1972 . . .

In her recent switchboard blog, NRDC's Mae Wu describes how triclosan products slipped onto the market and into our bodies, despite concerns being flagged by scientists way back in 1972. It took a few years to get the process rolling, and then:

In FDA’s first draft monograph in 1978, triclosan and triclocarban were not approved as safe or effective.. [but] since FDA never finalized that draft monograph, triclosan and triclocarban have been allowed in those products and antibacterial soaps have since proliferated on the market.

Wait, they found these products were neither safe nor effective, but forgot to finish the paperwork that would keep them off the market? Sheesh. Three decades of aggressive marketing later, the Centers for Disease Control found triclosan in the bodies of 3 out of 4 Americans.

It was these body burden data — samples taken in 2003 and 2004, released in 2009 — that finally sounded alarm bells loud enough to get things moving. That, and growing public pressure from PAN and other groups, including lawsuits and legal petitions from our colleagues at NRDC, Beyond Pesticides and Food and Water Watch.

States & companies take the lead

While the federal agencies are dusting off their paperwork, states and market actors have been getting things done. After finding triclosan in Minnesota lakes, the Governor signed an executive order early in 2013 to get triclosan products off the shopping list for all state agencies and institutions.

And both Johnson and Johnson and Proctor and Gamble have pledged to pull triclosan out of their products in the next year or two.

This is very good, because even with the FDA process finally in motion, soaps and body washes won't be off the shelves until 2016 at the earliest.

And then there's the long list of triclosan imbued products — from bibs to running gear, mattress pads to cutting boards — that are governed by EPA. Early in 2013 the agency charged with protecting our health and environment announced an "accelerated" plan for reviewing triclosan products that will be completed by... 2019. Really guys?

Stay tuned for ways you can weigh in to help policymakers speed things up, and finally get this one right. Meanwhile, check the ingredient list of any product labeled "antibacterial" for triclosan — and reach for something else instead.

A version of this post also appeared on GroundTruth.


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