If you’re afraid of bad bugs – all those germs you can’t see but just know are EVERYWHERE – you’re definitely not alone.
And industry is there for you, ready to wipe away your anxiety with products promising you a germ-free existence.
Fear sells, after all, and marketers know it.
But the thing is, the FDA has just called them out on their inability to prove these products’ safety. They’ve just banned the powerful antimicrobial triclosan in soap.
And that’s a good thing. It comes as a result of mounting evidence that daily exposure to antimicrobial products could lead to virulent strains of bacteria that develop antibiotic resistance. And studies in animals show triclosan – and a related antibacterial chemical, triclocarban – can disrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism.
In fact, triclosan has been on the hit list since 1978. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the ban came to slow fruition over the last six years.
In response to a 2010 NRDC lawsuit, the FDA agreed in November 2013 to issue that long-awaited rule on triclosan. The following month, the agency followed through with a proposal stating that not enough is understood about the health impacts of triclosan to deem it safe, and that evidence shows washing hands with regular soap is just as effective as using the antibacterial stuff. The FDA called on manufacturers of products using triclosan to prove otherwise and set September 2016 as the deadline. After that date, products containing triclosan may, at long last, be taken off the market.
While we applaud the long awaited ban, unfortunately, it’s not exactly the end of the story. Oddly, triclosan is still allowed in toothpaste.
Triclosan will still be permitted in products like Colgate Total toothpaste, due to the company’s successful—and expensive—1997 effort to work around the regular process to get FDA approval. (NRDC filed a lawsuit in 2014 to obtain information from the FDA about that process.) While the toothpaste might be effective, and even recommended, for very extreme cases of gingivitis, it’s arguably more dangerous than hand soap because of the mouth’s greater ability to absorb toxins. In fact, a study showed that people who brushed their teeth with Colgate Total had more than five times as much triclosan in their urine than people who didn’t.
The problem with allowing triclosan in toothpaste is best explained by Rolf Halden, a director for environmental security at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. Halden, who has tracked triclosan for years, shared in an NYT interview why Colgate Total users might have five times as much triclosan in their systems:
We put soap on our hands, and a small amount gets into our body. But through the gums, chemicals get rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.
From there, notes the NDRC, the problems compound:
For starters, it’s an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with important hormone functions, which can directly affect the brain in addition to our immune and reproductive systems. Specifically, the chemical disturbs thyroid, testosterone, and estrogen regulation, which can create a host of issues including early puberty, poor sperm quality, infertility, obesity, and cancer. Studies have also shown it can lead to impaired learning and memory, exacerbate allergies, and weaken muscle function. The impacts of prolonged exposure during fetal development, infancy, and childhood can be particularly severe, resulting in permanent damage.
Overwhelmed yet? There’s more. Studies have shown that the overuse of antimicrobial chemicals like triclosan might also be contributing to antibiotic resistance in bacteria, a major public health concern. At least two million people in the United States fall sick—and about 23,000 die—from antibiotic-resistant infections every year.
And, like any toxin, allowing small amounts puts all of us at risk. When toothpaste is used for brushing teeth, some may be swallowed and some spit into a sink. From the sink, it enters wastewater systems, seafood, soil, and landfills, all of which could prove harmful to all of us.
Of course, we’ve been asked many times to suspend reality and just accept: to accept pathogenic denial – as when mercury, a neurotoxin, is placed inches from the brain or when postwar surplus fluoride is used to medicate our municipal water supply.
The ban on triclosan in soaps, while good, certainly does not embody the precautionary principle. Triclosan just isn’t necessary. Gingivitis can be treated by dentists, hygienists, and patients themselves, without using toxic fluoride or toxic triclosan or toxic anything.
But until our government is willing and able to embrace the precautionary principle on its citizens’ behalf, we will have to advocate for our own self interests.
Image by Finishing School, via Flickr