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Antibacterial soap products raise health concerns

February 15, 2011

Rolf Halden, an environmental engineering expert from ASU's Biodesign Institute, will participate on a Congressional briefing panel in Washington, D.C., Feb. 17, about the public health dangers of triclosan – a common antimicrobial ingredient that has raised health and environmental concerns.

Triclosan is a common additive found in antibacterial soaps and personal care products. Antimicrobials made their first appearance in commercial hand soaps in the 1980s, and by 2001, 76 percent of liquid hand soaps contained the chemical.

But the active ingredients of these soaps now have come under scrutiny by the EPA and FDA due to both environmental and human health concerns.

Halden, an associate professor in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and researcher at Biodesign’s Swette Center for Environmental Biotechnology, led a research team that has found triclosan – and another antimicrobial additive called triclocarban – to persist during wastewater treatment and cause environmental contamination nationwide. Triclosan and triclocarban pose risks to ecological and human health due to their potential to disrupt proper endocrine function and to cause cross-resistance to life-saving antibiotics used in human medicine.

The chemistry behind these compounds makes them notoriously difficult to break down, thereby enabling them to persist in the environment for years to decades. Halden’s team found significant concentrations of these chemicals dating back to the 1950s in sediments of the Eastern Seaboard near New York City and Baltimore, where sewage treatment plants discharge their treated domestic wastewater. In fact, both triclosan and triclocarban are present in 60 percent of all rivers and streams in the United States. Wastewater treatment processes do not fully eliminate them, so the chemicals persist in sewage sludge, which is then used to fertilize crops on agricultural land.

Closer to home, antimicrobial chemicals appear in household dust where they may act as allergens, and alarmingly, 97 percent of U.S. women with newborns show detectable levels of triclosan in their breast milk. Such unnecessary exposures carry risks that, at present, are ill-defined.

“The culture of fear leads people to make impulsive decisions and buy a lot of antimicrobial products that are not really needed,” Halden said. “It's a profitable market to be in, but not one that is ultimately sustainable or a good idea.”

Several companies are beginning to agree. Colgate-Palmolive, GlaxoSmithKline, and Johnson and Johnson have recently removed or agreed to phase out triclosan from some of their products.

In 2000, a representative with the American Medical Association said that “it may be prudent to avoid the use of antimicrobial agents in consumer products,” citing the potential for triclosan to create more potent strains of bacteria, thereby increasing antibiotic resistance.

The Food and Water Watch and Beyond Pesticides public health advocacy groups have organized this week’s Congressional forum and submitted a petition to the EPA asking for the ban of triclosan from all nonmedical applications. The EPA is currently observing a 60-day public comment period about the petition.

In addition to Halden, other panelists at the briefing will be: Allison Aiello of the University of Michigan School of Public Health; Peter Vikesland of Virginia Tech; and Kathy Dolan of Food and Water Watch. The session will be moderated by Wenonah Hauter of Food and Water Watch. U.S. Reps. Louise Slughter (NY) and Betty McCollum (MN) will host the session at the Capitol’s Congressional Meeting Room South at 10 a.m., Feb. 17.

Food and Water Watch triclosan fact sheet: