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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Triclosan Safety Questioned

Air Date: Week of

Triclosan is in toothpaste, cutting boards, children’s toys and many other common products. (Photo: Wikimedia Creative Commons)

The antibacterial agent triclosan is found in many consumer products like toothpaste, countertops and children’s toys. A coalition of environmental groups claims the chemical is an endocrine disruptor and toxic to the environment. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there is no evidence of harm. Host Bruce Gellerman talks to Nichelle Harriott from Beyond Pesticides, the group leading the environmental coalition, and Shelly Burgess from the FDA.


GELLERMAN: The chemical triclosan can be found in thousands of household products - toothpaste, kids' toys and face creams, computer keyboards, yoga mats and soaps - especially soaps. Tricolosan is in so many products because it kills germs.

Triclosan has been around for 40 years, and for nearly all that time U.S. officials have been investigating the chemical for safety and effectiveness. Now the Canadian government has just declared the antibacterial agent an environmental toxin, and has proposed regulations that would sharply curtail its use in Canada. Nichelle Harriott is with the environmental group Beyond Pesticides. It's leading a coalition of 80 organizations trying to get triclosan banned in the United States.

HARRIOT: Every product that triclosan is in, is essentially washed down the drain and directly goes into the environment. In surface water, it degrades to another chemical, 240CP, which is known under the Clean Water Act as a priority pollutant, which means that EPA is supposed to regulate that chemical. We know that it is probably taken up by plants and by crops that we eat, and we don’t actually know what the effects are because no one is looking at this, yet we are putting this chemical out into the environment.

GELLERMAN: But Canada specifically says that there’s not sufficient evidence to conclude that this is harmful to people.

HARRIOT: I did see that and that is pretty shocking, but a lot of work that we have done have shown that there are some serious human health effects that we need to take a look at. So, we know that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor. I mean, it impacts our hormones and so if we have this chemical out there in the environment, this is a concern, because it may accumulate up the food chain, we may be ingesting this chemical unbeknownst to us, so what are we doing to our bodies? Triclosan has been found in urine, it has been found in breast milk, it has been found in umbilical cord blood.

GELLERMAN: I know there have been concerns about this antibiotic chemical that is that it could create resistance to drugs that we have to fight bacteria, what is the evidence that this is actually happening?

HARRIOT: Well, there is some preliminary evidence that bacteria exposed to triclosan eventually become resistant to triclosan. And once resistant to triclosan, they may have cross-resistance to other antibiotics, then there is a serious public health concern.

GELLERMAN: As I understand, when triclosan is combined with cholorine, which is in many water supplies, it forms chloroform!

HARRIOT: Yes, there was one study that indicated that. And of course, that waves a lot of red flags, if you’re brushing your teeth, and a lot of toothpaste contains triclosan, are you being exposed to chloroform through the chlorine in the tap water? And chloroform is very toxic, you know, it’s not something that you want to be inhaling. And our regulatory system tends to be more reactionary than precautionary, and so we do allow chemicals into the environment without sufficient human and environmental health overview. So we’re now retroactively trying to do something about this.

GELLERMAN: Nichelle Harriot is with the group Beyond Pesticides. In the U.S., the EPA regulates triclosan as a pesticide; the FDA looks into its uses in foods and drugs. Shelly Burgess is a spokesperson with the FDA.

BURGESS: Triclosan is currently not known to be hazardous to humans, and, we are engaged in ongoing scientific and regulatory review of the safety of triclosan in FDA regulated products. And what consumers should know is that we don't have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time.

GELLERMAN: Does the FDA have any evidence to suggest that triclosan in antibacterial soaps provides a benefit, in terms of health, to the user?

BURGESS: What I can say is that we don’t currently limit the concentration of triclosan in over-the-counter consumer products, such as consumer antibacterial soaps. And this is because FDA’s view of the safety and effectiveness of triclosan is ongoing.

GELLERMAN: But I’m reading from a paper that was presented by the FDA to the public two years ago and it says: “At this time the Agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefits over washing with regular soap in water.” That’s from the FDA, that’s your agency!

BURGESS: That’s correct. That’s correct.

GELLERMAN: Then why is it being sold?

BURGESS: Well, again, we’re engaged in ongoing scientific and regulatory review with the safety of triclosan.

GELLERMAN: When does your review end, do you have a date?

BURGESS: Well, we’re going to publish those findings later in 2012, in the winter of 2012.

GELLERMAN: That’s FDA spokesperson Shelly Burgess. You can learn more about Canada’s proposal that would declare triclosan an environmental toxin and find the latest scientific studies at our web site: loe dot org.

[MUSIC: The Echocentrics “We Need A Resolution” from Echoland: A tribute To Timbaland (Ubiquity Records 2011).]

GELLERMAN: Just ahead, Africa's Great Green Wall, and why national borders and fences make bad neighbors for migrating animals. Keep listening to Living on Earth!



Beyond Pesticides

Triclosan: What Consumers Should Know

Congressmen Markey wants to end the sale of triclosan

The EPA's Research on Triclosan


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