(Beyond Pesticides, 9-30-11) Researchers from the University of Rhode Island (URI) have detected the antimicrobial triclosan and other toxic chemicals in the waters of Narragansett Bay off the coast of Rhode Island. The chemicals are a group of hazardous compounds that are common in industrial processes and personal care products but are not typically monitored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Rainer Lohmann, Ph.D., associate professor of chemical oceanography, and graduate student Victoria Sacks, with the help of 40 volunteers, tested for the presence of the chemicals in 27 locations throughout the bay. The compounds were found at every site. “Being exposed to these compounds is the hidden cost of our lifestyle,” said Dr. Lohmann. “It’s frustrating that as we ban the use of some chemical compounds, industry is adding new ones that we don’t know are any better.”
Although the chemicals were detected at very low levels, research has shown that many chemical compounds can still be quite toxic, even at low doses. Additionally, since triclosan is an antimicrobial agent, low concentrations provide the perfect environment in which to breed and select for bacteria that resist the effects of the chemical.
“By themselves, none of these results makes me think that we shouldn’t be swimming in the bay or eating fish caught there,” said Dr. Lohmann. “But we only tested for three compounds that might be of concern, and we know there are hundreds more out there. The totality of all those compounds together is what may be worrisome.”
In addition to triclosan, the compounds the researchers measured, which scientists refer to as “emerging contaminants of concern,” are: alkylphenols, widely used as detergents and known to disrupt the reproductive system; and, PBDEs, industrial products used as flame retardants on a wide variety of consumer products. PBDEs have been banned because they cause long-term adverse effects in humans and wildlife.
PBDEs, methyltriclosan and triclosan are found in highest concentrations in the Blackstone River, Woonasquatucket River and in upper Narragansett Bay, while some detergents are detected at similar levels at nearly every site.
“Many of the trends in society — from early puberty changes to some diseases — may be caused by chemical exposures,” said Dr. Lohmann. “They trigger hormones and disrupt the normal functioning of the body. We have no resistance against them.”
The chemical compounds were detected using polyethelene passive samplers, thin pieces of plastic that absorb chemicals that are dissolved in water. The volunteers placed the samplers in various rivers and coves in the Narragansett Bay watershed in the fall of 2009 and retrieved them two to three weeks later. The chemical compounds were then extracted from the samplers in a lab at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography.
“Unfortunately, no matter how you choose your lifestyle, you can’t avoid exposure to these compounds,” he added. “You just can’t escape.”
Triclosan has been one of the most commonly detected chemicals in U.S. waterways and sewage sludge, which often gets recycled to agricultural and residential lands. It has also been detected in fish, earthworms and crops, and has been shown to cause damage in aquatic ecosystems. A study in January also documented the troubling trend of the chemical being detected, along with other dangerous substances, in human tissue.
The detection of triclosan in waterways is especially troubling because when the chemical is exposed to sunlight in an aqueous environment it can lead to the formation of dioxins. Dioxins are a family of highly toxic substances linked to cancer, weakened immune systems and reproductive problems. They are persistent organic pollutants that bioaccumulate in humans and other animals, especially in fatty tissue. Dioxins can be highly carcinogenic and can cause health problems as severe as weakening of the immune system, decreased fertility, altered sex hormones, miscarriage, birth defects, and cancer.
EPA was recently cited for its lax regulation of antimicrobial substances such as triclosan. However, a growing body of research, including this most recent study, is demonstrating that contamination is almost certainly unavoidable, even if stronger regulation were imposed, as long as the chemicals remain on the market.
TAKE ACTION: Tell Bath and Body Works to “Spread Love, Not Toxics” by discontinuing their line of personal care products containing triclosan.
You can also join the ban triclosan campaign and sign the pledge to stop using triclosan today. Avoid products containing triclosan, and encourage your local schools, government agencies, and local businesses to use their buying power to go triclosan-free. Urge your municipality, institution or company to adopt the model resolution which commits to not procuring or using products containing triclosan.
Source: URI press release
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.