Is Antibacterial Soap Making Your Kids Fat? How Hormone Disruptors Wreak Havoc on Health

This post is part of a series I will be writing on chemicals in our everyday products that may act as endocrine disruptors. These include the antibacterial chemical tricolsan, found in many personal care products.
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"Almost 40 percent of my 4- and 5-year-olds are obese," said Stephen P. Bolduc, M.D., who's been practicing pediatrics for 32 years, "and they're not responding to traditional treatment. When I suggest they exercise more and eat less they don't lose weight, as an overweight kid, say 10 years ago, would," he added. He's seeing a major shift in his practice. "It's migrated from one predominately focused on infectious diseases that responded well to medical intervention to one with illnesses where the cause is not as easily identified and the treatments are not as effective." Aside from obesity, Dr. Bolduc is noticing other disturbing trends. "Lots of my 5- and 6-year-olds are now on psych meds, kids as young as 6 have body odor [a possible indication of early puberty] and they need to wear deodorant. I see more and more kids with IBS (irritable bowl syndrome), asthma and diabetes, plus, there's a huge increase in premie births, and about 30 percent of the young moms in my practice have fertility issues," he said with a concerned look on his face.

If this one pediatrician's experience in his "typical" Virginia-based practice is an indication of what other pediatricians are noticing it could be part of a national trend and it's alarming. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), learning and developmental disabilities now affect nearly 1 in 6 children in the US; ADHD appears in an estimated 9 percent of children; autism spectrum disorder shows up in 1 in 88 children (a 78 percent increase from a decade ago), and girls in the U.S. are entering puberty at earlier ages than they have in the past. Plus, $3-5 billion is spent per year in the U.S. on infertility treatments. What's going on?

One explanation could be that environmental toxins are acting as endocrine disruptors -- substances that interfere with our natural hormones -- and pregnant women, unborn babies and children are most susceptible. The exposure happens on a daily basis from being in contact with everyday products in the home. Everything from soap, shampoo and cleaners, to air, drinking water, and food -- even plastic containers and register receipts emit chemicals that mess with our hormones. All of this can have profound implications.

"Chemicals in the U.S. are under-studied and under-regulated. As a result, people are being exposed to many chemicals that have not been adequately studied for their health effects," said Ted Schettler, M.D., Science Director of CHE (Collaborative on Health and the Environment). He was a guest lecturer at a recent training sponsored by CHE at Commonweal in Bolinas, Calif., which Dr. Bolduc and I attended along with a group that included doctors, nurses, government officials, and community activists. We heard lectures from five other scientists and researchers on the impact environmental toxins have on reproductive and endocrine systems and what can happen when these systems are disrupted.

This article is part of a series I will be writing on chemicals in our everyday products that may act as endocrine disruptors. These include the antibacterial chemical tricolsan, found in many personal care products; BPA (bisphenol A), found in plastic drinking containers and the lining of canned food; and flame retardant chemicals, found in as much as 80 percent of furniture sold in the U.S. in everything from couches to baby cribs.

Extreme Clean

When my daughter was about 7 years old, she invited a girlfriend to our home for a sleepover. As they were getting ready for bed, I overheard the following conversation from the bathroom:

Friend: "What kind of toothpaste is that? It looks weird."

My daughter: "It's an all-natural one. And what are you using? Colgate? Don't you know that can kill you?"

I was horrified. Had I been a bit too harsh in my consciousness-raising and created an eco-monster? I sat them both down and explained that the toothpaste her friend was using wouldn't kill her, or anybody, but that it was better to choose a natural one, without a lot of added chemicals.

Fast forward eight years to present day. Colgate now uses a chemical (which is actually a pesticide) called triclosan in its Colgate Total toothpaste. A really effective way to absorb chemicals is through the mouth. For example, when a drug like nitroglycerine is administered for a heart condition it is given under the tongue for fast absorption. So are natural homeopathic remedies. So what happens when you brush with toothpaste containing triclosan? You get a dose of the chemical.

There is a warning label on the box of Colgate Total that says "Keep out of reach of children under the age of 6. If more than used for brushing is swallowed, contact the poison control center or your physician." Colgate is aware that Triclosan shouldn't be ingested in large amounts. But what about small amounts ingested twice a day over years? And what about children under 6, whose parents may not have read the warning label? No one is certain. But one thing is for sure: "Three out of four Americans have Triclosan in their blood," said Sarah Janssen, M.D., Ph.D, senior scientist in the health and environment program at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) in San Francisco. "And when you brush your teeth with a toothpaste containing the chemical, your levels go way up." According to one study (Allymr, 2009), volunteers brushing with Tricolsan toothpaste for 14 days had a dramatic rise in blood levels -- 450 times normal.

Here's the scary part: According to scientists, triclosan (also found in deodorant, acne cream and antibacterial soaps) is proven to be an endocrine disruptor in laboratory animals. It decreases thyroxine levels in the thyroid (Crofton, 2007),interferes with testosterone and decreases sperm counts (Kumar, 2009); and interferes with estrogen, bringing on early puberty (Stoker, 2010). While we know that many people are exposed to triclosan, studies are only beginning to examine what the impacts might be. And of note, people are typically exposed to levels of triclosan that are lower than those used in the animal studies.

And think about this: According to Johns Hopkins University research, about 75 percent of triclosan (found in 75 percent of liquid hand soaps) and its cousin triclocarban (found in 25 percent of bar soaps) is flushed down drains and survives treatment at sewage plants. Most of that ends up in sludge spread on farm fields and enters our food chain! Every year, the study says, an estimated 200 tons of these two compounds are applied to agricultural lands nationwide.

What can you do?

  • Read labels. Look for the word "antibacterial" as a clue that the product contains triclosan or triclocarbon and don't buy it.
  • Use plain soap and water. Antibacterial soaps and washes are not any better at killing germs and could contribute to the growth of bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics.
  • Choose alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
  • Tell your dentist to read the research and offer Tom's toothpaste or other, safer choices to their patients.
  • Eat organic food to avoid the possibility of consuming triclosan in your food.

Beth Greer, Super Natural Mom®, is author of the bestseller "Super Natural Home," endorsed by Deepak Chopra and Ralph Nader. She's former President of The Learning Annex, and an environmental health advocate who eliminated a sizable tumor in her chest without drugs or surgery. Beth is also an inspiring speaker and popular media guest having appeared on CNN, ABC and NBC. She designs Working Healthy corporate wellness programs and personalized in-home detox audits nationwide.

For more by Beth Greer, click here.

For more on natural health, click here.

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