Levels of the chemical triclosan have increased in humans by an average of 50 percent since 2004, according to newly updated data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Meanwhile, a new study out of the University of Toledo has found that both triclosan and triclocarban can enter the food chain through of the use of contaminated wastewater or fertilizer in agricultural fields. Each of these findings on its own is troubling, but together they make the case for banning the two chemicals even stronger, according to health experts at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment.
Triclosan and triclocarban are found in consumer and personal care products, such as hand soap, labeled antibacterial or antimicrobial. But the two chemicals are suspected endocrine disruptors that can interfere with hormones needed for the brain and reproductive system to develop properly. The NRDC says that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has admitted that using hand soap containing these chemicals actually does not work any better than regular soap. Last week, the NRDC sued the FDA to force the agency to issue a final rule on the safety and effectiveness of the two chemicals that has been three decades in the making.
Updated data added this week to the CDCs National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals found that levels of triclosan in the U.S. population have increased by an average of 50 percent in all age groups, both genders and all reported ethnicities. People over 20 years of age, females and Mexican-Americans are the most highly exposed.
Both triclosan and triclocarban are found in treated waste water and sewage sludge, which is specially treated and commonly applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer. A study published online this week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found that soybean plants can absorb triclosan and triclocarban through their roots and then into the beans. Though this experiment was done in a greenhouse, it raises concerns because it suggests that humans are not only exposed through their use of certain antimicrobial products, but also potentially through eating contaminated food.
"The widespread and unregulated use of antimicrobials such as triclosan and triclocarban must end," says Sarah Janssen, senior scientist at the NRDC. "In just two years, human exposure to triclosan has dramatically risen and now there is evidence that our food supply could also be contaminated with these chemicals. With no proven benefit and many red flags raised for harmful health impacts, the use of these so-called anti-microbials is an unnecessary and stupid use of toxic chemicals."
On July 27, the NRDC filed its lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York against the FDA for failing to issue a final rule regulating triclosan and triclocarban.
"Washing your hands with so-called antibacterial soap containing triclosan or triclocarban actually does nothing different than using regular soap and water. Using soap containing these chemicals does not provide an additional benefit as consumers might think, but instead actually comes with potential health risks," said Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist in the Health and Environment Program at NRDC. "The FDA needs to prohibit these harmful chemicals from being put into products in the first place."
The majority of consumer soaps claiming to be "antibacterial" or "antimicrobial" contain the chemicals triclosan or triclocarban. FDA first proposed a rule that would have removed these chemicals from soaps in 1978. Until this rule is finalized, these chemicals can be widely used with no regulatory oversight -- despite evidence that they are not effective and numerous studies associate them with serious health risks. The growing use of these chemicals in products has led to widespread residues in the environment and in people; recent bio-monitoring results found residues of triclosan in 75 percent of Americans over the age of six. The chemicals are absorbed through contact with the skin and tests have found them in human blood, urine and even breast milk.
Laboratory studies have shown that these chemicals are endocrine-disruptors capable of interfering with hormones critical for normal development and reproduction. Such hormonal interference has the potential to cause long-term health problems including poor sperm quality and infertility, and damage to the developing brain leading to poor learning and memory. Several studies suggest that triclosan and triclocarban also may contribute to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
In April, FDA acknowledged soaps containing triclosan offer no additional benefit over regular soap and water. FDA also expressed concern about the development of antibiotic resistance from using antibacterial products and about triclosans potential long-term health effects, but did not move ahead on the rule-making.
"Three decades of delay is outrageous," said Avinash Kar, an attorney with NRDC. "FDA needs to issue a final rule on triclosan and triclocarban now, and that rule should ban both chemicals in hand soaps."
The lawsuit asks the court to impose a strict deadline for FDA to finalize the rule, which has been pending for 32 years. Under FDAs current proposal, the rule would ban the continued use of triclosan and triclocarban in many antibacterial products.