Life in a Bubble – The Dangers of Triclosanby Sajid Surve, DO | September 4, 2008
The American population is obsessed with germs. Although relatively few people are unfortunate enough to suffer from OCD, a more pervasive subclinical paranoia persists in our psyche which manifests as our culture of cleanliness. During daytime television it is almost impossible to go through an entire commercial break without seeing an ad for cleaning products such as soaps, air sanitizers, detergents, or other various cleaning paraphernalia. Additionally, more and more of these products are emerging with some form of antimicrobial, antibacterial, or bacteriostatic chemical included to “stay tough on germs.” One such example is the chemical triclosan, although there are several others with similar issues.
Triclosan is an antimicrobial agent which works by inhibiting an enzyme which bacteria use to synthesize fatty acids. Humans do not have this particular enzyme, so triclosan was initially thought to be fairly innocuous. As a result its use has mushroomed out into an array of consumer products spanning multiple categories. Soap, shampoo, shaving cream, baby wipes, surface cleaners, hand sanitizers, deodorants, toothpaste, cosmetics, first aid kits, kitchen utensils, computer keyboards, clothing, bike helmets, wall paint, and escalator handrails are just some examples of products which may contain triclosan. Public exposure to this chemical is so widespread that a March 2008 study conducted by the CDC, which tested urine samples on thousands of people, concluded that about 75% of Americans have detectable urine triclosan levels.
The problem with triclosan is threefold. Firstly, the chemical is absorbed into our bloodstreams (as evidenced by elevated urine levels) and is lipophilic, meaning that it stores easily in our fat cells and our concentration levels rise over time as exposure continues. Some studies have suggested that elevated blood levels may lead to central nervous system depression and impaired thyroid function. Additionally, while triclosan itself has not been linked to cancer, the manufacturing process for triclosan may lead to the production of dioxins, which are carcinogenic. Also, combining triclosan with chlorinated water or UV light, which would readily occur when using the public water supply, produces a specific type of dioxin which is particularly carcinogenic.
The second issue with triclosan is environmental. Around 95% of the products which contain triclosan are disposed of by being washed down the drain and eventually wind up in our waterways and public water supply. Water treatment plants do not remove or neutralize triclosan. As such, thirty-year-old sediment on river floors have turned up traces of triclosan, suggesting that the chemical has particular longevity underwater. This pollutant is affecting our ecosystems, as triclosan is toxic to several types algae which form the base of the food chain. The process of biomagnification, as was demonstrated with DDT, has not yet been demonstrated with triclosan.
The final problem with triclosan extends to the larger problem of excessive cleanliness. A British doctor by the name of David Strachan has proposed something called the “hygiene hypothesis,” which states that problems like allergies, asthma, hayfever, and eczema are caused by an immature immune system. Our immune system works by sampling the environment for small doses of potentially harmful substances such as bacteria, fungi, viruses, etc. and using that information to produce antibodies for defense against the offending agent. The hygiene hypothesis states that by removing all exposure to potential pathogens through sanitation, our immune systems have no way to practice and instead decide to turn on our own bodies. When that stimulus finally does arrive, the body is so immature and unrehearsed that it overreacts and produces a huge response to tiny inputs. The hygiene hypothesis is starting to be observed in nature, as recent studies have shown that children raised on farms or with pets are far less likely to develop asthma, allergies, etc. than their deprived counterparts.
Now that triclosan has been established as potentially harmful, what is the next step? The quickest and easiest fix is to return to plain soap and water for washing hands. All scientific evidence supports the fact that thorough hand washing with just soap and water is equal in bacteria reduction to the antibacterial products. If you absolutely insist on having a bacteriocidal agent on board, some essential oils like Australian tea tree oil, grapefruit seed extract, and pine oil have antimicrobial properties, so choose products containing those instead. Eliminating triclosan from the rest of the products you use may prove more difficult, but checking labels and staying vigilant can help minimize exposure.
Some countries in Europe such as Denmark and Finland have either banned or severely restricted the use of triclosan due to its harmful environmental effects. The United States, unfortunately, has taken a far less proactive position and have no regulations on its use. An ounce of public awareness may be what is required to emerge as a society from our life in a bubble.
Glaser, Aviva. The Ubiquitous Triclosan. A common antibacterial agent exposed. Pesticides and You. Vol. 24, No. 3, 2004.
Environmental Phenols. National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. CDC.
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