In our natural instinct to protect our children, we sometimes (often?) get waylaid by products that end up doing more harm than good, but make a nice profit for the manufacturer. A chemical called triclosan is a case in point.
It’s supposed to vanquish “germs,” that is, bacteria or microbes. You’ll find it in liquid soaps, toothpastes, acne creams, and wipes, as well as in surprising places such as cutting boards, bath towels, plastic sandals and children’s toys. Its sibling chemical, triclocarban, is used primarily in deodorant bar soaps and in many cosmetic products. We spend almost $1 billion a year on these products. Yet basic hand-washing with plain soap and water does as good a job in killing germs and preventing illness.
Not only are we wasting a hefty sum of money, it turns out that we are harming ourselves and the world around us. Because manufacturers have impregnated triclosan into so many products, it has, in turn, entered our bodies: tests have found it in at least 75 percent of Americans. That’s not good news because this chemical interferes with the thyroid hormone, which can disturb normal growth and brain development. Both triclosan and triclocarban also interfere with the male and female sex hormones that affect the reproductive system and could potentially contribute to breast cancer. Both accumulate in human blood, breast milk and the umbilical cord of babies in the womb. Both chemicals also degenerate into dioxin – a potent carcinogen, --wherever they are released and morph into dioxin wherever they are manufactured.
Another troubling fact is that these chemicals are probably contributing to antibiotic resistance in bacteria or microbes that cause human infections. That was one reason that the American Medical Association has declared that we should avoid these chemicals.
It is not necessary to directly use these chemical-laden products for their traces to enter your body. They get washed down the drain into our waterways where some of it persists through sewerage treatment. They end up in the sludge often applied as fertilizer to agricultural fields. They end up in creatures as diverse as earthworms, bottleneck dolphins, and algae (to which they are toxic).
The regulation of these chemicals is a nightmare because they’ve been incorporated into many different products and reappear in so many other sources, such as drinking water. For example, when triclosan is used in toothpaste, it is regulated by the FDA, but it must also be approved for use by EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs because as an anti-microbial it is classified as a pesticide. When found in our water supply, triclosan is subject to both the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) oversees its use in consumer proudcts. As the Environmental Defense Fund points out, “Such a complex regulatory system serves as an impediment to taking a comprehensive approach to triclosan regulation, and has fostered its cavalier use.”
What it means for you:
Take consumer action. Save your money and protect your family’s health: avoid buying “antibacterial” products.
These chemicals appear on labels in different guises -- as triclosan, triclocarban, Microban, Irgasan, Biofresh, Lexol-300, Ster-Zac, or Cloxifenolum. Companies using these chemicals include Rubbermaid, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter and Gamble and Unilever.
Instead, use soap and water. If and when you want to be extra careful, you can wet your hands with isopropyl alcohol, the liquid doctors swab on our skin before giving us a shot. When you’re on the go, use an alcohol-based wipe, but if its package says ‘antibacterial,’ it contains one of the offending chemicals. Soap-and-water is the right way to clean towels, toys etc.
Take citizen action: join the movement underway to ban these chemicals. Right now a coalition of environmental health groups has formed a Ban Triclosan Campaign, to pressure FDA and EPA to regulate these antibacterials. Join them at www.beyondpesticides.org/antibacterial/action/resources.htm.
GOOD NEWS ALERT ABOUT CHEMICALS IN GENERAL
The U.S. imports or makes 27 trillion pounds a year of chemicals, a lot of them harmful to us, our children and environment. Up till now, no one could say how many of them are in fact toxic because of the gaping holes and flaws in the law governing their use, the Toxic Control Substances Act, passed in 1976.
Now a much improved law, the Safe Chemicals Act, has been introduced into the Senate (by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Democrat from New Jersey) and the House (by Rep Henry Waxman, Democrat from California). Though similar legislation has been offered in earlier years, this time around chances of passage are good because: (1) a remarkable, perhaps historic number of grassroots and national environmental health groups have coalesced, forming Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, to push for its passage, (2) there’s a more favorable administration and Congress, and (3) new science supports the connection between cause (harmful chemicals) and effect (illnesses).
To stay on top of the fate of this bill, and/or to help give it a push, contact the coalition: www.saferchemicals.org.
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Alice Shabecoff is the co-author with her husband Philip of Poisoned for Profits: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, just released as a paperback.