(Beyond Pesticides, January 29, 2013) A new study has discovered the anti-bacterial chemical triclosan and several of its toxic derivatives in sediment samples taken from freshwater lakes. Research published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology reveals the chemical to be present in increasing concentrations since it was first invented in the 1960’s. The results of this study put increased pressure on lawmakers and cosmetic companies to remove this chemical from consumer products. Beyond Pesticides and other groups, which have petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to remove triclosan from a vast array of consumer products, continues to urge cosmetic companies to take action on the chemical in the face of inadequate regulation to protect human health and the environment.
Scientists tested eight sediment samples from freshwater lakes across Minnesota, including Lake Superior. Bill Arnold, Ph.D., co-author of the study and professor at University of Minnesota notes, “We found that in all the lakes there’s triclosan in the sediment, and in general, the concentration increased from when triclosan was invented in 1964 to present day. And we also found there are seven other compounds that are derivatives or degradation products of triclosan that are also in the sediment an also increasing in concentration with time.” Some of the breakdown products that scientists discovered were polychlorodibenzo-p-dioxins (PCDDs), a group of chemicals known to be toxic to both humans and wildlife.
All of the lakes tested are end routes for wastewater treatment plants. Researchers explain that triclosan undergoes a chemical reaction in treatment plants during the last stage of the purification process, when chlorine is mixed with wastewater.
Dr. Arnold continues, “Triclosan goes through the wastewater treatment system, and the wastewater treatment plant actually does a pretty darn good job of removing it. 90 to 95 percent of it is taken out, but we use so much triclosan that the rest of it gets through, and three of the compounds we found are chlorinated triclosan derivatives, and they’re formed in the last step of wastewater treatment, when the wastewater is disinfected before it’s discharged and the disinfectant is chlorine. So that creates these three new compounds. And then triclosan and these three new compounds, when they’re exposed to sunlight, each of them undergoes a reaction that forms a dioxin, so that’s where the other four compounds come from.”
Dr. Arnold notes that triclosan and its breakdown contaminants have the potential to build up in the ocean, as well as in freshwater lakes. This current research follows a 2010 study which showed triclosan’s potential to disrupt aquatic ecosystems by inhibiting photosynthesis in algae and killing beneficial bacteria.
Other research on triclosan’s human health and environmental effects reinforce Beyond Pesticides’ message to regulators and cosmetic companies to stop the use of this chemical. Last year, researchers from the University of California at Davis (UC Davis) and the University of Colorado found that the chemical impairs muscle function in fish and mice and stated that the results they found show “strong evidence that triclosan could have effects on animal and human health at current levels of exposure.” Issac Passah, Ph.D., co-author of the muscle function study and chair of the Department of Molecular Biosciences at UC Davis will be speaking at Beyond Pesticides’ 31st National Pesticide Forum. The forum takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico and runs from Friday, April 5th to Saturday the 6th.
Triclosan is an endocrine disruptor and has been shown to affect male and female reproductive hormones and possibly fetal development. It is also shown to alter thyroid function, and other studies have found that due to its extensive use in consumer goods, triclosan and its metabolites are present in umbilical cord blood and human milk. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also found that triclosan is present in the urine of 75% of the U.S. population, with concentrations that have increased by 50% since 2004.
Triclosan is present in hundreds of consumer products ranging from antibacterial soaps, deodorants, toothpastes, cosmetics, fabrics, toys, and other household and personal care products, appearing in some of these products in a formulation known as Microban. In the absence of overarching federal regulations, and in response to consumer outrage, a few large companies began phasing out or reformulating products to not contain triclosan. Last year, Johnson and Johnson announced it would begin removing the chemical from its consumer products, following a 2011 announcement by Colgate-Palmolive indicating that they would do the same (although the company is retaining use of triclosan in its Colgate Total brand toothpaste, a line the company claims fights gingivitis).
Beyond Pesticides, in partnership with Food and Water Watch and 80 other groups, submitted petitions to both FDA and EPA in 2009 and 2010 requiring that they end the use of all non-medically prescribed triclosan uses on the basis that those uses violate numerous federal statutes. Echoing these petitions, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) also submitted letters of concern to both EPA and FDA. In FDA’s response, the agency acknowledged that soaps containing triclosan offer no additional benefit over regular soap and water. FDA stated that “existing data raise valid concerns about the [health] effects of repetitive daily human exposure to these antiseptic ingredients” and announced plans to address the use of triclosan in cosmetics or other products. FDA also expressed concern about the development of antibiotic resistance from using antibacterial products and about triclosan’s potential long-term health effects. Additionally, Rep. Louise M. Slaughter (D-NY) and two colleagues asked FDA to ban triclosan in 2010 due to the hazards that the chemical poses, including antibiotic resistance and potential health problems leading to higher health care costs.
In March of 2012, Canadian officials announced that they are set to declare triclosan toxic to the environment, an action that triggers a process to find ways to curtail a chemical’s use, including a possible ban in a range of personal-care products.
In the words of Dr. Arnold, co-author of the recent study, “I think this is a case where consumers can certainly put pressure on the market. So if consumers look at their products and don’t buy things with triclosan, they’re making their voice heard. Or they can also talk to the retailers and the manufacturers and tell them they don’t want this product if that’s the choice they make, if they don’t like the fact that it’s going beyond their sink and into the environment.”
Beyond Pesticides urges concerned consumers to join the ban triclosan campaign and sign the pledge to stop using triclosan today. Read the label of personal care products in order to avoid those containing triclosan. Encourage your local schools, government agencies, and local businesses to use their buying power to go triclosan-free. Urge your municipality, school, or company to adopt the model resolution which commits to not procuring or using products containing triclosan.
For more information or to register for the 31st National Pesticide Forum, see Beyond Pesticides’ webpage.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.