Antibacterial hand soap

What's in your hand soap? Research shows triclosan is no more effective at killing germs than regular soap and water.
Photo: © Photographee.eu \ Fotolia.com

Ottawa knows that a common ingredient in antibacterial soaps is posing acute and chronic problems for human health and freshwater ecosystems but has done nothing to ban triclosan, according to environmental and consumer advocates.

But now there’s even more evidence against the toxin. The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) teamed up with Clean Production Action to test the environmental and human health impacts of triclosan and triclocarban. Both chemicals are found in everything from clothing and yoga mats to cutting boards, but are found most commonly in antibacterial hand soaps where they pose a double risk to human health and freshwater ecosystems. Bioaccumulation in lower levels of the aquatic food chain quickly move these chemicals up the ladder, threatening the health of fisheries and those who rely on them for food across the country.

RELATED: Toxic Triclosan: How to Avoid It

Using the GreenScreen for Safer Chemicals standard for measuring toxicity, CELA and Clean Production Action released their report last week showing triclosan is a Benchmark 1 “chemical of high concern” and triclocarban is a Benchmark 2 “chemical with very high aquatic toxicity.”

Health and environmental impacts associated with Benchmark 1 status include:

  • acute toxicity in humans
  • chronic aquatic toxicity
  • persistence and bioaccumulation in the environment
  • decreases sperm production and disrupts the reproductive process

“An unsuspecting consumer doesn’t necessarily know [a product] has triclosan in it when they’re purchasing it,” said CELA researcher Fe de Leon.

The report notes that in Canada, roughly 1,600 cosmetics and other health products containing triclosan were widely available for purchase in 2011. Moreover, triclosan is also found in approximately 130 personal care products, everything from toothpaste to skin cleansers and moisturizers, all reported to Health Canada.

In 2012, both Health Canada and Environment Canada conducted tests of triclosan to measure its effects on human health and the environment. While both noted the chemical should be closely monitored, only Environment Canada said it was approaching a point of being a danger to the environment. Health Canada was less concerned.

Since 2012, Ottawa has done nothing to regulate or ban these substances. Part of the problem is that government is working its way through hundreds of chemicals to determine how they should be managed or whether they’re severe enough to warrant a ban, de Leon told Alternatives Journal. “Triclosan has been assessed in 2012, and the issue is when are they going to finalize that report,” she said. “That report does show that it’s toxic, so we would like to see them move on with it and get to the management side of it.”

Bev Thorpe from Clean Product Action, lead author of the report, said in an interview with A/J that some manufacturers are good about labelling triclosan and triclocarban on their products, but in many bar soaps or cosmetics the labelling is nonexistent, incomplete or so tiny it’s impossible to read.

“It’s very difficult for a consumer who is worried about these two antibacterials to avoid them,” she said. “But I don't think it should be up to the consumer to have to avoid it.”

According to Thorpe, exposure to triclosan and triclocarban in humans can cause issues ranging from skin and eye irritation right up to serious problems with reproduction and hormone disruption.

While it’s hard to point to triclosan as the sole cause of reproductive problems or issues like ADHD in children since “we live in a soup of these type of hormone disrupting chemicals,” Thorpe said, if we know they’re toxic to humans and the environment that should be enough to trigger action from Ottawa. This is especially true given the European Union and the United States are already moving to reduce or ban the use of triclosan and triclocarban, she said.

“Environment Canada says it’s toxic to the environment and they said this in 2012; we are now in 2014, so why are they taking so long?” Thorpe asked.

Both chemicals showed up in almost 90% of surface water samples tested from the Great Lakes.

The GreenScreen testing found these chemicals are showing up in freshwater ecosystems including, but not limited to, the Great Lakes. In 2010, both chemicals showed up in almost 90 per cent of surface water samples tested from the Great Lakes, which supply drinking water to and receives wastewater effluent from 40-million people.

These toxins are showing up in plants and algae where they can easily make their way up the aquatic food chain. “We can’t avoid them,” de Leon said. “The long-term impacts are still not yet clear, but the fact that they are being found in the water may have eventual impacts on water quality and fisheries.”

The groups are calling on Ottawa to ban triclosan and triclocarban in all consumer products and demand that companies find safer alternatives. It starts with the federal government acting on their own research, implementing a ban and educating people about the risks, de Leon said.

“The end result is you need to protect human health and if that means phasing out a chemical from consumer products then so be it,” she said. “That needs to be done.” 

Andrew Reeves is an environmental writer completing a book about Asian carp in North America. He is a contributing editor at Alternatives Journal and This Magazine’s environmental columnist. His work has also appeared in the Globe & MailSpacing and Corporate Knights.

Follow him on Twitter.

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