The Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to ban the antibacterial chemical triclosan in consumer products, in response to a petition submitted by 82 environmental and public health groups led by Beyond Pesticides and Food & Water Watch.
According to a public notice published in the Federal Register December 8, the petitioners have asked the EPA to “use its authority under various statutes to regulate triclosan,” because the “‘pervasive and widespread use’ of triclosan poses significant risks to human health and the environment.” The EPA opened a 60-day public-comment period that extends through February 7, 2011, after which time the agency will accelerate its review of the chemical to begin a full 10 years ahead of schedule.
Although originally developed for clinical use, triclosan now lurks in all kinds of consumer products, including toys, cutting boards, toothpaste, facial tissues, laundry detergents, deodorant, cosmetics and hand sanitizers. But health-watchdog organizations like the Environmental Working Group have been cautioning against triclosan in everyday items for years.
“Triclosan is a potent antimicrobial chemical that has a legitimate—and necessary—role in health care settings,” said EWG Senior Scientist Olga Naidenko, PhD. “However, overuse of any antibacterial substance when not absolutely necessary carries the risk of development of resistant bacteria. In addition, there’s no research showing that triclosan-containing products [used at home] clean better than plain soap and water.”
Not only does triclosan offer no benefit to routine hand-washing—research shows that it carries myriad potential hazards. “Triclosan may harm the endocrine system, especially the thyroid, and it may be converted to potentially carcinogenic by-products,” Naidenko said. The antibacterial, along with its chemical cousin triclocarbon, may also affect male and female reproductive hormones and disrupt fetal development, studies show.
Based on data from the 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found triclosan in the urine of almost 75 percent of people tested. In July, the CDC released its updated National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, which found that triclosan levels have increased in humans by an average of 50 percent since 2004. And given that squirt bottles of sanitizer now sit on counters in nearly every health care facility, store and workplace as a result of 2009’s H1N1 outbreak, triclosan exposure has likely shot up even further.
And then there are the environmental impacts. “Triclosan is also really toxic to aquatic life, which is a big problem, since vast quantities of triclosan from hand soap and dishwashing products end up going down the drain every day,” Naidenko said. According to EWG reports, more than half of 85 U.S. waterways surveyed contained traces of triclosan, which breaks down into toxic chemicals, including chloroform (a carcinogen), methyl triclosan and a form of dioxin.
Even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates triclosan in hand soaps and sanitizers and other personal care products while the EPA oversees its use in pesticides and home care products, the petition asks the EPA to exert its authority, and the agency acknowledges that it plans to continue working closely and pooling research with the FDA.