You Are What You Use – Triclosan

Triclosan | Source: WikipediaOn Saturday, the Government of Canada announced that it was declaring a chemical called 5-chloro-2-(2,4-dichlorophenoxy)phenol to be toxic to the environment under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. 5-chloro-2-(2,4-dichlorophenoxy)phenol?? What the heck is that? You may know it by its more common name, Triclosan. But chances are, unless you’re in the science field, you’ve probably never heard of triclosan. And yet, I would be willing to wager that I could find triclosan in at least 5 household products in 9-of-10 average North American homes.

You see, triclosan is very good at killing microbes, fungi and bacteria. And so if you have any product that is labelled ‘antimicrobial’, ‘antifungal’ or ‘antibacterial’, there is an excellent chance that it contains triclosan. The most obvious products that contain triclosan are cosmetics and personal care products. According to Health Canada, triclosan is present in approximately 1600 different cosmetic products, including “face cream, face and eye makeup, hand cream, deodorant sticks/sprays, fragrances, body lotion, tanning products, skin cleansers, shaving preparations and shampoos”. Its also present in 130 drug products, including some brands of toothpaste (as a “medicinal” ingredient).

Sneeze | Source: mcfarlandmo on Flickr

But more and more, companies are making things ‘antibacterial’ and using that as a marketing ploy. Antibacterial socks? Why not? How about an antibacterial steering wheel? Kitchen products, computer products, kid’s toys, hot tubs, the sky is the limit for what you can make ‘antibacterial’. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, triclosan has been used in textiles (clothing, mattresses, footwear, upholstery fabrics), plastic (toys and toothbrushes), floor wax, plastics, paper, rubber materials, paints, adhesives and caulks; conveyor belts, fire hoses, and ice-making machines; and on residential and public premises, including heating ,ventilating and air conditioning coils, but also in insulations, concrete mixtures, grouts, brooms, toilet bowls and urinals.

Bottom line: its everywhere! I recently read a book entitled Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. Its a sort of Super Size Me for chemicals, and a terrific, highly recommended read. In it, Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie try to manipulate the chemicals in their body by consuming or using particular everyday household products. Bruce was particularly offended by triclosan. The chemical appears on most product labels, and so he thought he had steered clear of it in his household. Then one day, he was watering his tomato plants, and saw that his garden hose was ‘antimicrobial’. Like I said…its everywhere!

Why is Triclosan Harmful to the Environment?

When we use triclosan-containing products, most often in the form of cosmetic and personal care products, they wind up in our wastewater system because we either excrete the compound after we ingest or absorb it, or as part of residual product that we don’t use and put down the drain. Since wastewater treatment systems are not built to remove trace amounts of chemicals like triclosan, it then ends up back in the environment where the triclosan-contaminated water can be taken up by fish or used to irrigate agricultural soil. And then it ends up back in us. It’s a cycle!

Triclosan has been found to be toxic to fish, and can act as an endocrine disrupter in amphibians. That means they disrupt the organism’s hormonal system, which can cause effects ranging from cancer to developmental disorders. The government continues to claim that triclosan is safe for humans. But the government used to say triclosan was safe for the environment. And now they say its not. Science changes quickly, and we learn new things every day. How long will it be before we realize that we underestimated the impacts of triclosan?

Even if triclosan is not harmful to human health, it may be creating another problem that is linked to human health – the ‘superbug’. Bacteria and microbes are smart, resistant little guys. And they can evolve. When we develop ways to kill them, they develop ways to survive. As this cycle goes on, we wind up with stronger microbes that are harder to kill, and these microbes may wind up wreaking havoc on us.

Triclosan Isn’t Even Proven to Work in a Household Setting

Did you know that Listerine was originally designed for the surgical/medical industry? When the makers realized the commercial opportunities of marketing Listerine as mouthwash, they found a goldmine. Triclosan was born in a similar manner. As an antimicrobial agent in a hospital setting, triclosan does exactly what its supposed to do, and its very good at it. But the makers of triclosan and other antibacterial agents realized they were sitting on a larger goldmine. They could prey on the population’s fear of germs!

The US Food and Drug Administration says they have found no evidence that triclosan added to antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any added benefit over regular soap and water. Wait…what? They why do they allow manufacturers to put triclosan in products in the first place? The Canadian Medical Association have been asking the same question and have called for a ban on triclosan in consumer products [link loads a PDF file]. 

In many cases, there isn’t even enough triclosan in the products to be effective. Because there are no standards for how much triclosan has to be in a product to call it ‘antibacterial’, as long as manufacturers put some in, they can use the name and benefit from the marketing. In some cases, the consumer doesn’t even know where the triclosan is. In that antibacterial toothbrush you just bought, where is the triclosan? You’d expect it to be in the bristles, but chances are, its in the handle. Useful, huh?

Does it End Up in Us?

It sure does! I told you about the book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck. The author used 8 triclosan-containing products over a 2 day period. Common everyday products, that many of us have in our homes – Colgate Total toothpaste, Gillette shaving gel, Right Guard deodorant, Dawn dishsoap, etc. He measured the levels of triclosan in his urine before and after the two days. His triclosan levels after two days were 7000 times higher than they were before the experiment started. What particularly shocked him was that no matter how hard he’s tried to clear his house of all triclosan sources, he still had some in his system even before the experiment started. Like I said, its everywhere. Go into your bathroom or your kitchen. Look at the ingredients on some of your products, do you see triclosan anywhere?

The Government has deemed triclosan to be toxic to the environment, but they haven’t issued a ban yet. That doesn’t mean that you can’t self-impose one. The next time you’re buying a product, if it’s labeled antimicrobial or antibacterial, vote with your dollars and buy something else. Chances are, the normal version of whatever you want will be cheaper to boot.

A number of the facts and numbers used in this post come from the full Environment Canada report on triclosan. If you are interested in reading this report, you can click here. Note, the report is rather technical in nature.

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5 thoughts on “You Are What You Use – Triclosan

  1. So by purchasing things that are anti-bacterial, I’m doing the opposite of what I think I’m doing. I’m really hurting myself rather than protecting myself. For some reason, this does not surprise me. 100 years from now we’re all going to find out that half the things we used on a daily basis gave us cancer, etc. I’ll have to remember that book – it sounds interesting!

    • The defenders of triclosan would be quick to respond that there have been no studies that prove that triclosan is toxic to humans, but you are still putting low doses of chemicals in your body over a long period of time, and the effects of that are completely unknown. And unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll have to wait 100 years to find that out – we can already attribute environmental damage and loss of life to products we used 30-50 years ago.

  2. Good post. I try to avoid using Triclosan for both my own health benefits as well as the environment. There is also speculation that the over use of Anti-microbial products spawned the Antibiotic-Resistant MRSA superbug that is so deadly in hospitals.

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