We’re baaack! The Organic Adventurer has spent the last few months traveling the world on many an eco-adventure. We’ve also been helping and encouraging folks on both coasts of this fine nation to green up and answering a billion great questions from clients taking anywhere from the first to the 5 millionth step in their own Organic Adventures.
Things have been moving so fast that we hadn’t had a chance to share with our readers, but that’s going to change starting with a great question we received from a client quite a while ago that’s timely now because of the recent news coming out of the FDA. The client asked, “Are we not supposed to have triclosan in our soaps?”
The client was out shopping at the time and needed a quick answer: “No! Just sent you a link to read later, but the short story is: 1) hormone disruptor; 2) implicated in antibiotic resistance; 3) very bio- and eco-persistent…aka it is in you and the environment for a long time. Besides, soap with triclosan in it hasn’t been shown to work any better than regular soap.”
Since then, and especially in the last week or so, we’ve gotten a lot more questions about triclosan and hormone disruptors in general. It’s a really big topic that stretches into the cleaning supply closet, the kitchen and pantry, the bathroom, and even into the kids’ toy chest! Plus, after finding it in urine, blood, breast milk and umbilical cord blood, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 75 percent of the U.S. population has triclosan in their bodies. That’s worth taking a closer look at, right? So over the next few blog posts, we’re going to examine the issue of hormone disruptors in our daily lives.
Triclosan, of course, has been in the public consciousness a lot lately because of the news that the FDA may require manufacturers of antibacterial products containing triclosan to demonstrate that their products work as stated (i.e. that they’re more effective than regular soap and water at stemming the spread of germs) and that they don’t have any long-term ill effects for the user. Notice we said, “may require.” The big headlines that claim the FDA is going to “ban antibacterial soaps” are misleading, but that’s another story for another day.
First, let’s understand what triclosan is and why it is of concern. Triclosan is an antimicrobial chemical (used against bacteria, fungus, mildew, etc.). Because of its use in products intended for the individual consumer, such as soaps, deodorants and facial tissues, it is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. But it’s also important to note that because it has environmental applications and implications (pesticides that affect water quality and wildlife, wastewater contamination, etc.) it is also regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Since we’re talking mostly about triclosan as a consumer antibacterial and the FDA’s involvement, though, let’s stick with that.
The concerns about triclosan are many. One stems from the fact that it is a hormone disruptor. Specifically, and this is another term you may have heard, it’s an endocrine (the body’s hormone system) disruptor or EDC (endocrine disrupting chemical). It’s important to understand, though, that it’s not the only one. In fact, there are over 800 EDCs that we know of so far! You may remember the controversy several years ago over another EDC, Bisphenol-A (BPA), and its use in baby bottles and, more recently, in reusable water bottles and plastic food storage items.
So what is an endocrine disruptor and what does it do? Our bodies’ hormonal system manufactures and delivers its chemicals to different parts of the body to tell those parts what to do, when to do it and how much of that task to do. For example, the hormones produced by the thyroid gland are whisked off to nearly every part of the body and every cell in those parts. They perform a host of very specific and important jobs, but think of them like regulators. Too fast, too slow or just right, they control metabolism, heart rate, temperature, digestion, bone growth, reproductive processes, fetal brain development and much, much more.
Hormone disruptors like triclosan and BPA interfere with the endocrine system in several different ways. They can be so much like a hormone that they trick the system and everything it affects into not doing their jobs correctly. Or they can bind to hormone receptors, blocking the hormone from performing its job. (Think of it like putting electrical tape over the openings of an outlet. If you can’t plug your lamp in, your lamp can’t do its job.) EDCs can also interfere with the proteins on which our hormones hitch rides to the far reaches of our bodies. All of this means that any of our functions controlled by hormones (which are just about every function) can be messed up by EDCs. Some of the fairly firmly established consequences in humans are reproductive effects like a sex-ratio imbalance (fewer males born), reduced thyroid hormone levels (linked to reduced IQ, ADHD, and autism in children and all the problems of hypothyroidism in adults), a link to the development of Type 2 diabetes, immune dysfunction (particularly hay fever) and more. Evidence in animal studies also suggests additional effects such as cancers and neurotoxic (brain and nervous system) effects to name just a few.
One of the claims that manufacturers of products containing triclosan make regarding the direct health effects on humans is that the concentrations of triclosan are so low as to pose no danger to human health. Aside from the fact that this does not take into account repeated exposure (American women use about 12 personal care products each and every day; men use an average of 6), multiple exposures (many of those products contain the same chemicals) or the mixture of exposures (how those chemicals interact with each other and the environment), it leads directly to another concern about triclosan and other antimicrobials used in consumer products: their contribution to antibiotic resistance.
We’re all probably familiar with the scenario of a doctor who prescribes antibiotics and tells the patient that he or she must take all of the medicine or risk not killing the offending bacteria off completely and even strengthening it by allowing those bugs strong enough to survive the initial dosing to reproduce and pass along the genes that made them strong enough to survive. The same principle applies when it comes to dosing ourselves, our water supply and the environment with levels of an antimicrobial too low to kill many microbes, but high enough to toughen up the population of those that do survive. Then, when we really need to kill the “superbugs” we’ve created, we have to use stronger and stronger drugs, which eventually don’t work at all. In the U.S. alone, 23,000 people a year die as a direct result of infection by antibiotic-resistant germs.
Other similar concerns include that antimicrobials like triclosan kill off “good” bacteria as well as the “bad.” Good bacteria would be that which is either beneficial by itself or is beneficial because it competes with the bad bacteria, keeping it in check. Additionally, there are bacteria that triclosan can’t kill because of the physiology of the bacteria. These are the kinds of facts that have led people to want the manufacturers of triclosan-containing consumer products to prove that they are, in fact, more effective than regular soap, water, and scrubbing and that they won’t, in the end, harm us.
Here are a few opinions from the experts:
The American Medical Association: “…it may be prudent to avoid the use of antimicrobial agents in consumer products.”
The World Health Organization: “Over the last 10 years, it has been established that endocrine disruptors can work together to produce additive effects, even when combined at low doses that individually do not produce observable effects.” … “Perhaps the answer is in making more use of the precautionary principle to ban or restrict chemicals in order to reduce exposure early, even when there are significant but incomplete data and before there is significant and long-lasting harm.”
The Royal Society: “While the issue of EDCs is confused by serious gaps in our knowledge, policies to deal with the current concerns must be developed,” … “hand in hand with ongoing research. Regulations cannot be ‘put on hold’ until all the evidence has been collected.”
The FDA: “I suspect there are a lot of consumers who assume that by using an anti-bacterial soap product, they are protecting themselves from illness, protecting their families,” said Sandra Kweder, deputy director in the FDA’s drug center. “But we don’t have any evidence that that is really the case over simple soap and water.”
There’s a lot more to the triclosan story, but if you want to impose your own personal triclosan ban, you can start by looking at all the products in your home that say “antibacterial,” “odor-fighting,” “germ-killing,” and so on. Look at the labels that indicate ingredients or what the product is made out of or includes. Get rid of anything that includes “triclosan” or “triclocarban.” Of course that’s just a start, so if you need help, contact us for a customized green living consultation. We can make reducing your exposure to EDCs easy!
Meanwhile, we’d love to hear from you in the comments! Have you found triclosan in your home or workplace? How many personal care products do you use on a daily basis? How many do your kids use?
More reading, if you’re interested:
Sources used in this article (not a complete list, just a useful one):
Another general article about the FDA’s preliminary decision: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=251605208
The NRDC on triclosan: http://www.nrdc.org/living/chemicalindex/triclosan.asp
The 2008 EPA re-registration decision in which EPA decides to review triclosan in 2013, ten years earlier than they’d previously decided to do it: http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/2340red.pdf
UNEP and WHO’s opinion on the state of EDC science: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/78102/1/WHO_HSE_PHE_IHE_2013.1_eng.pdf
Food & Water Watch on EDCs: http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/water/triclosan/
Study demonstrating decrease in germ diversity due to triclosan (competition between good and bad bacteria): http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC194980/
Study demonstrating that human cells are, in fact, susceptible to EDCs: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19778091
Summary of Royal Society findings regarding EDCs: http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/consensus/royalsociety.htm
The CDC on antibiotic resistance: http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/threat-report-2013/
The WHO on antibiotic resistance: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs194/en/