by J.A. Ginsburg
Triclosan. Add it to the ever-growing list of ingredients you don’t want to see on a label. Banned in Europe, Japan and Canada, under review in the US and literally in just about every child’s product you can imagine, antimicrobial Triclosan has been linked to allergies, superbugs, messed up hormones and the demise of diatoms, microscopic aquatic algae critical both to the food chain and the generation of the planet’s oxygen.
That is a whole lot of bad for something marketed as an “added value” product—and a product that actually can do some good in very specific cases.
Triclosan isn’t a typical “vizlearning” topic, but growing evidence that it could represent a significant health risk to young children tipped the balance.
Recently, I attended ICAAC, an infectious disease conference (pronounced “ick ack”) sponsored by the American Society for Microbiology (I wear a few different hats, including that of science geek…) Dr. Stuart Levy, the director of the Center for Adaptation Genetics and Drug Resistance at Tufts University, spoke about Triclosan (webcast time code 41:30). “There is no evidence it improves health… It captures the imagination, but it’s a real mistake,” Levy noted, a point he has been making for well over a decade.
The problems arise from triclosan’s ubiquity. It is in everything from hand sanitizers, antibacterial soaps and toothpaste, to shampoos, plastic toys, cosmetics and paint. It is also, apparently, in 75% of us. More specifically, it is in 75% of the urine samples tested by the CDC. Although it swirls through our bodies rather than accumulates, there is a constant circulation, so constant exposure.
Triclosan is sturdy enough to survive sewage treatment. Once released into a stream or lake , it continues to kill microbes, including diatoms, affecting the balance of entire ecosystems. Exposed to sunlight, it breaks down into dioxins, which then settle in sediments.
In commercial products, triclosan is used at low dilutions, which, ironically, only makes it more harmful. Antibiotic resistance is almost inevitable because enough microbes survive to evolve and thrive. Even if 99.99% of germs are, in fact, killed (a claim that has been disputed), that effectively clears the playing field for the 0.01% that are naturally resistant, such as Pseudomonas and Streptococcus pneumoniae.
Since antibacterial resistance genes are routinely shared among bacteria though a process called horizontal transfer, simply hanging out with resistant microbes can turn other microbes into “superbugs.” That’s something to consider the next time your child has an ear ache or other infection, first line antibiotics don’t work and the only drugs that do are really expensive.
One way to help bring down health care costs is to make sure older, cheaper antibiotics remain effective.
Soap and water do a fine job, according to Dr. Levy. Alcohol-based hand disinfectants work, too (the alcohol dissipates, so doesn’t stick around long enough to generate resistance).
So let’s lose the triclosan, wash those hands and stay healthy!
- Is the Soap Lobby Right That Anti-Bacterials Are Safe? by Keira Butler, Mother Jones
- Triclosan in Waterways Harmful to Important Microorganisms, Beyond Pesticides
- FDA says studies on triclosan, used in sanitizers and soaps, raise concerns, by Lindsey Layton, Washington Post
- Triclosan, Wikipedia overview
- Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (another major source of antibiotic resistance)