(Beyond Pesticides, August 21, 2014) In case there wasn’t enough news about the hazards of the ubiquitous antibacterial chemical triclosan in the past week, another study published Tuesday finds additional risks associated with exposure to the pesticide. The study, Health Care Worker Exposures to the Antibacterial Agent Triclosan, led by researchers at University of California San Francisco (UCSF) finds that washing hands with antibacterial soap exposes hospital workers to significant and potentially unsafe levels of triclosan.
In the study, published in the August issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, researchers analyze urine samples from two groups of 38 doctors and nurses at two hospitals, identified as Hospital 1 and Hospital 2. Hospital 1 used an antibacterial soap containing 0.3 percent triclosan, while Hospital 2 used plain soap and water. Workers at Hospital 1 had significantly higher levels of triclosan in their urine than workers at Hospital 2.
“Antimicrobial soaps can carry unknown risks, and triclosan is of particular concern,” said co-investigator Paul Blanc, MD, a professor of medicine at UCSF who holds the Endowed Chair in Occupational and Environmental Medicine. “Our study shows that people absorb this chemical at work and at home, depending on the products that they use.”
Beyond Pesticides has compiled extensive documentation of the potential human and environmental health effects of triclosan and its cousin triclocarban. Studies show that triclosan can interfere with thyroid and estrogen hormones, and may promote the progression of cancer cells. 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. A recent study links triclosan to the growth of breast cancer cells.
Triclosan, a synthetic antibacterial agent, has been used for over 30 years in the U.S., and though its original uses were confined mostly to the health care settings, has grown over the last decade to be found in thousands of consumer products, including soaps, cosmetics, acne creams and some brands of toothpaste. The FDA is currently reviewing the safety of triclosan based on a growing body of research indicating that it can interfere with the action of hormones, potentially causing developmental problems in fetuses and newborns, among other health concerns. Meanwhile, private companies are phasing out triclosan from products due to direct pressure from educated consumers. Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and Colgate-Palmolive (with the exception of its toothpaste) began reformulating to remove triclosan from their products for several years now.
In the current study, the scientists also asked the study participants if they used a popular commercial toothpaste containing triclosan. While those who did had higher triclosan levels than those who did not, the researchers found that washing with antibacterial soap accounted for even higher triclosan levels than did brushing with the toothpaste.
Dr. Blanc recommended that, “If non-triclosan-containing soaps are available, use the alternative. This is based on the precautionary principle — that is, if you don’t know for certain that something is unsafe, it’s better to err on the side of caution.”
The same principle “could be applied more generally in this case,” said Dr. Blanc. “It should not be up to the individual to inspect every product for triclosan. Instead, it’s the duty of the FDA to carry out a review of this chemical and, if indicated, get it off the market.”
For people who want to replace antibacterial products in their home with something safer, said Dr. Blanc, “just plain soap and water is a pretty good alternative.”
Encourage your local hospitals, schools, government agencies, and businesses to use their buying power to go triclosan-free, or follow the lead of Minnesota by banning triclosan; organizations can adopt the model resolution which commits to not procuring or using products containing triclosan. For additional information and resources on the human health and environmental effects of triclosan, join the ban triclosan campaign and sign the pledge to stop using triclosan today.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.