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Antimicrobial Agent Triclosan is Harmful to Health and the Environment

written by: Terrie Schultz•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 8/6/2010

It is becoming difficult to find soap, dishwashing detergent, household cleaning products, or even toothpaste that doesn't claim to be "antibacterial." Most of these products contain triclosan, a chemical that is not only unnecessary to kill germs, but harmful to health and the environment.

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    What is Triclosan?

    Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent that has been in use since the 1970s, when it was introduced as a surgical scrub. In recent years, the use of antibacterial agents in personal care and household products has skyrocketed, and triclosan is the most widely-used antimicrobial agent. It is found in soaps, lotions, cosmetics, toothpaste, deodorant, and other personal hygiene products, as well as dishwashing detergent, plastic kitchenware, sponges, computer equipment, children's toys, and clothing.

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    Why Triclosan is Dangerous

    Triclosan is harmful in many different ways, both to human health and to the environment. It can cause skin irritation, and has been linked to increased susceptibility to allergies. Since triclosan is lipophilic (fat-soluble), it is absorbed into the body and stored in fat cells, where the concentration builds over time. In a CDC study, triclosan was detected in the urine samples of 75% of people tested. Swedish researchers detected triclosan in 3 out of 5 breast milk samples.

    When antibacterial personal care and cleaning products are used in the home, the triclosan ends up in wastewater treatment plants. The treatment process removes most, but not all, of the triclosan, and residual amounts are discharged back into the surface water.

    If antibacterial soaps are used outdoors, such as for washing vehicles, the runoff containing triclosan goes directly into storm drains and is carried to streams, rivers, and into the ocean. It is toxic to aquatic organisms, particularly algae, and it also bioaccumulates in fish, reaching concentrations thousands of times higher than the amount found in the water.

    Triclosan reacts with chlorine in tap water to produce chloroform, a suspected carcinogen. When exposed to sunlight, triclosan photodegrades into a number of highly toxic dioxin-related compounds.

    Overuse of antimicrobial agents such as triclosan can promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Rather than simply killing the bacteria by breaking them open, triclosan works by passing into the bacterial cell and interfering with the bacteria's metabolism by inhibiting an enzyme necessary for fatty-acid synthesis. Bacteria become resistant when random mutations generate alternate forms of the enzyme that are unaffected by triclosan, and these resistant bacteria can then multiply and spread.

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    Top Medical Groups Advise against use of Antimicrobial Soaps

    Antimicrobial agents such as triclosan are not necessary to prevent the spread of germs. As reported in an American Medical News article, the FDA's Non-prescription Drugs Advisory Committee concluded that products with antibacterial agents "have no benefit over ordinary soap and water." The same article cited an AMA Council on Scientific Affairs report that cautioned against using antibacterial soaps since their effectiveness is unproven, and there are critical concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

    The CDC considers washing hands vigorously for 10 seconds with plain soap and warm water, even for health care workers, to be sufficient. If an additional disinfectant is desired, they recommend alcohol or peroxide-based hand sanitizers.

    Some European countries, including Denmark and Finland, have banned triclosan or restricted its use.

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    Make Your Own Cleaning Products

    Of course, the most efficient way to ensure you're not absorbing harmful chemicals from your cleaning products is to make your own. Find recipes for laundry detergent, as well as home made soaps and even organic shampoo and conditioner. Making your own products ensures you control all the ingredients that go on your body, it also cuts down wasteful packaging and the energy required to ship and advertise materials.

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    Sources

    Americal Medical News, “FDA Questions Consumer Use of Antimicrobial Soap."

    Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides, "The Ubiquitous Triclosan."