Have you looked at the labels of your soap, deodorant, or toothpaste lately? You may see an “active ingredient” listing for triclosan or triclocarbon, antibacterial chemicals that are used in a multitude of consumer products. Our nation of germaphobes seems to feel safer buying products labeled “antibacterial,” but these products may do more harm than good.
On Monday, Minnesota became the first state to ban the use of triclosan in most consumer products. After years of efforts by many different groups (including NACWA), state legislation, federal regulation, and voluntary action by product manufacturers may finally be coalescing to result in large-scale removal of triclosan and triclocarbon from consumer products.
Triclosan was first introduced in 1964, but its use in consumer products has increased tremendously over the last 20 years. Triclosan and triclocarbon were found in 75% of liquid soaps and 29% of bar soaps by 2000 – despite no proven benefits of washing with antibacterial soaps rather than plain soap and water.
Triclosan presents many potential risks to the environment, human health, and wastewater treatment. It persists in the natural environment, bioaccumulates in humans and other species of life, is an endocrine disrupter, and promotes cross-resistance to medical antibiotics. It may also potentially threaten the ability of wastewater utilities to comply with the toxicity limits in their discharge permits, harm the micro-organisms used to treat wastewater, and compromise the ability to beneficially reuse biosolids.
If triclosan is so bad, why has it been so widely used for such a long time? Because the regulatory process has never prohibited it. Triclosan is regulated as an antimicrobial pesticide by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and as an antimicrobial drug by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The uses covered by EPA regulations are generally on solid surfaces, and triclosan from these products may be washed into sewers during cleaning. Our bigger concern, however, is the personal care products covered by FDA regulations – such as soaps, toothpaste, lotions, and dishwashing liquids – that are washed directly into the sewer system.
The FDA first proposed a regulation on triclosan in 1974 – yes, 40 years ago – that would not have recognized triclosan as generally safe and effective. This rule was tentatively finalized in 1978 and updated in 1994, but since the FDA never actually finalized it, use of the chemical continued unchecked.
A 2013 lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) resulted in a consent decree requiring the FDA to finalize the regulation for hand soap use in 2014, with other regulations finalized in future years. The FDA’s proposal states that “the record does not currently contain sufficient data to show that there is any additional benefit from the use of consumer antiseptic hand or body washes compared to nonantibacterial soap and water.” If finalized in a similar form, the rule would basically eliminate the use of triclosan, triclocarbon, and many other antibacterial chemicals from soaps.
The Procter & Gamble Company announced in 2013 that it would remove triclosan from its products by the end of 2014, Johnson & Johnson will remove it by 2015, and Avon is also planning to remove it. While the final FDA action is not expected until September 2016, the Minnesota law to ban triclosan along with the example of large companies removing triclosan from their products may pressure other manufacturers to start working on phasing out this chemical. NACWA has been following the triclosan issue for years and has asked EPA many times to reconsider its approved uses of triclosan (see our Emerging Contaminants webpage for examples of the letters we have sent). NACWA will be offering an opportunity for its members to learn more about triclosan and how to comment on the FDA proposal during a webinar on Wednesday, May 28, 1:00-2:00 pm Eastern. If you are a NACWA member, please click here to register.