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Antibacterial Products could have Dire Consequences for Human Health

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Associate professor Rolf Halden, of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University has been studying the effect of triclosan and triclocarban –antibacterial chemicals found in soaps, cosmetics, toys, plastics and clothing - on human health and the environment. According to Halden who is a biologist and engineer, the chemicals are unsafe for humans and the environment, and their use could have dire consequences. Halden also says they don't work, as does the FDA, yet antibacterial products remain a billion dollar a year industry.

Both of the chemicals are widely incorporated into everyday products ranging from soap, toothbrushes, acne products, and deodorant, shaving gel and "natural" cosmetics. According to Harden, triclosan is a potent germ killer that made its debut in commercial hand soaps in the 1980's. Since 2004, levels of triclosan in humans have increased by an average of 50 percent per estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and are showing up in 97 percent of women's breast milk. The problem is they have been strongly linked to birth defects, weakened immunity and even cancer.

Antimicrobial Products Unnecessary and Unsafe

There is little evidence that widespread use of antibacterial products are any more effective than washing with regular soap and water, making their use unnecessary for the public. According to Halden, “The culture of fear leads people to make impulsive decisions and buy a lot of antimicrobial products that are not really needed. It's a profitable market to be in, but not one that is ultimately sustainable or a good idea."

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Halden conducted studies confirming triclosan and triclocarban accumulate in wastewater sludge and are then transferred to the soil and natural water environments where they persist for years, stick to particles and have even accumulated in dolphins in contaminated coastal waters.

“We make 13 billion pounds of dry sludge per year,” Halden notes. “That is equal to a railroad train filled with sludge stretching 750 miles from Phoenix to San Francisco.” One half of this sludge winds up on agricultural fields. The potential for these chemicals to migrate into food or leach into groundwater, has not received adequate consideration. It is likely that antimicrobials are capable of moving up the food chain, through a process known as biomagnification.” He adds the accumulation of triclosan and triclocarban in the environment will create more super-bugs with dire human consequences.

Read: NRDC Sues FDA Over Failure to Ban Chemicals in Antibacterial Soap

The purpose of the studies is to alert the public and the EPA about the dangers of triclosan and triclocarban found in antibacterial products that could lead to more harm than good. He warns the antimicrobials can wipe out smaller ecosystems because of their high threshold for germ killing. “This explains why residual concentrations of antimicrobials found in aquatic environments are still sufficiently harmful to wipe out the small and sensitive crustaceans, which are critical to the aquatic life cycle and food web,” Halden says.

Antimicrobials are useful in clinical setting such as hospitals, but for the public Halden says they’re a bad idea. The consequences of regular use of antibacterial products can harm human health and the environment and the risks are not completely defined. Halden says we are guinea pigs and that regulation of harmful chemicals is badly needed. In the meantime consumers would be safer to avoid triclosan and triclocarban containing products. You can find a list of products containing triclosan here.

The Biodesign Institute

Updated October 26, 2016