Triclosan rubber-stamped by EPA : environmental safety down the drain

This fall, EPA approved re-registration of antibacterial soap ingredient triclosan for yet another five years of use in consumer products, potentially leaving human and environmental health at great risk.

Throughout 2008, EWG and many other health advocacy groups brought public and media attention to triclosan, a potent pesticide that has found its way into most Americans’ homes. EWG research identified triclosan in more than 140 types of consumer products, ranging from HVAC systems and cutting boards to toothbrushes, hand soaps and anti-perspirants. However, due to lack of ingredient disclosure by the manufacturers, most consumers are not aware how frequently they may be exposed to triclosan.

Triclosan production is estimated to be between 1 and 10 million pounds per year in the U.S. alone, and a study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 75% of Americans have detectable concentrations of triclosan in their body, indicating daily contact with this chemical. In a recent EWG study of cosmetics use by teenage girls, 100% of study participants, young girls aged 14 to 19, had triclosan in their bodies. Triclosan has also been detected in breast milk, indicating that a mother exposed to triclosan in personal care products can pass this chemical on to her newborn child. These findings are very worrisome because triclosan can potentially disrupt thyroid function and affect reproductive hormones.

Equally disconcerting is the fact that EPA’s assessment of triclosan has completely failed to fullfill the Agency’s mission to protect the environment. Due to wastewater effluent pollution, triclosan contaminates 57.6% of streams sampled by the US Geological Survey nationwide; it has been already detected in drinking water sources in 10 different states. Triclosan-containing household cleaners and personal care products are the main source of environmental triclosan contamination, posing dangers to algae, invertebrates and fish who live downstream. EPA review completely disregarded these major sources of environmental triclosan exposure, created an illusion of safety that is simply not there.

Why couldn’t EPA do a better job in reviewing environmental impact of triclosan? Regulatory separation between EPA- and FDA-regulated uses of triclosan is the key problem that, if left unaddressed, would continue undermining EPA’s efforts to protect the health of humans and the environment from this potent antimicrobial pesticide. No scientific rationale exists that would justify this separation. The current jurisdictional distinction between the two Agencies has made EPA, the primary regulator of triclosan manufacturing, unable to do anything about the widespread triclosan contamination of water and possibly soils and wildlife.

This week, EWG wrote to EPA, indicating numerous shortcomings in EPA’s risk assessment for triclosan and urging the Agency to do a comprehensive review of the effects of triclosan exposure on human and environmental health, taking into account the latest scientific research. To see EWG letter to EPA, click here.

One certainly hopes that this glaring problem would be addressed under the new administration and the new leadership at EPA. Meanwhile, what can consumers do? First and foremost – skip antibacterial hand soaps and detergents. They are absolutely unnecessary, they do not provide any additional health protection, and they pose grave risks to aquatic life. Sounds like a good New Year resolution – starting 2009 in an environmentally-friendly fashion!

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