FDA Still Dragging Its Feet on Triclosan

Surveys of the U.S. population from ages six to over 65 have found residues of triclosan -- marketed as reducing the growth of harmful bacteria -- in over three-quarters of people.
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Today, Representative Ed Markey released correspondence between his office and federal government agencies regarding concerns over the use of so-called “antimicrobial” chemicals. This was the result of concerns that NRDC brought to Mr. Markey's office and were focused on two chemicals, triclosan and triclocarban, which are widely used in personal care products, kitchenware, apparel and shoes, and other consumer products such as mouse pads and cleaning supplies. They are marketed as reducing the growth of harmful bacteria or preventing odors though there is no proven benefit to their use.

The FDA’s letter is particularly illuminating because they admit that these chemicals are no more effective at preventing illness than regular soap and water and that they are concerned about their potential harmful effects, including hormone disruption and the promotion of drug resistant bacteria.

Yet, in their public statement today on the use of triclosan FDA makes two very disappointing conclusions – one is that “data showing effects in animals don’t always predict effects in humans” and two is that FDA does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer practices at this time.”

Though they have been evaluating the safety of these antimicrobial chemicals for over 30 years but have yet to finalize any regulations, FDA went on to say that they need another year to review the data.

This is just more delay from an Agency that has a hard time keeping up with current science and isn’t doing their job of protecting the public’s health. If FDA doesn’t have any evidence that anti-bacterials like triclosan and triclocarban are effective and they are concerned about potential harmful effects, why wouldn’t they issue a strong consumer warning and initiate a process for removing these chemicals from store shelves?

FDA is supposed to protect our health, not protect the bottom line of chemical companies. We shouldn’t be too surprised as they have taken a less than proactive approach with other chemicals that have ample evidence of causing harm and widespread exposure in the population.

FDA has known for at least 5 years that these products have no more “antimicrobial” effectiveness than regular soap and water and that there was concern for their potential health impacts. The American Medical Association has also expressed concern for these chemicals contributing to drug resistant bacteria and stated "Considering available data and the critical nature of the antibiotic-resistance problem, it is prudent to avoid the use of antimicrobial agents in consumer products." And a number of countries have already taken precautions and issued warnings to limit their use.

In addition to being no more effective, these “antibacterial” chemicals also pose a health risk.

Animal studies have shown both of these chemicals can interfere with hormones critical for normal development and function of the brain and reproductive system. Triclosan has been associated with lower levels of thyroid hormone and testosterone, which could result in altered behavior, learning disabilities, or infertility. Triclocarban has been shown to artificially amplify the effects of sex hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, which could promote the growth of breast and prostate cancer.

Though these experiments were done in laboratory animals, the results are highly relevant to humans and animal studies are routinely used in making regulatory decisions. Animals and humans share similar hormone systems and it is well established that interference with thyroid hormone can cause harm to the developing brain in humans. We can’t ethically do experiments on humans to see if they develop the same health outcomes as a laboratory rat. Yet, we do know we are being widely exposed to these and other hormone-disrupting chemicals which are likely to be affecting our health.

Surveys of the U.S. population from ages 6 to over 65 have found residues of triclosan in over three-quarters of people. Though triclosan has been measured in house dust, most people are likely to be exposed by applying products that contain triclosan to their skin. One study of nursing mothers found higher levels of triclosan in blood and breast milk of women who used personal care products containing triclosan.

The good news is that because these chemicals are often found on a consumer product label, you can start avoiding further exposure now by reading the active ingredient labels. My colleague Gina Solomon has outlined some of the things you can do to limit exposure in her recent blog post. You can also check government websites for lists of products that contain these chemicals. Share our fact sheet and other educational materials with your friends.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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