Humanity’s New Enemy: Anti-Bacterial Soap. Written by Maggie Chang
Imagine unwittingly being slathered with toxic chemicals. That soap, meant to promote good-health could contribute to antibacterial resistance or thyroid disruption (Vasil, 2012; Dhillon et al., 2015; Olaniyan, Mkwetshana, & Okoh, 2016). Unfortunately, this is a reality for Canadians across the country. Triclosan is a common ingredient in antibacterial soaps linked to the previously mentioned issues in humans, in addition to being highly toxic to aquatic animals (Vasil, 2012; Dhillon et al., 2015). It has infiltrated numerous watersheds polluting all who live, play, and depend on that water.
In November 2016, the Canadian government chose not to ban the supposed bacteria fighter in favor of declaring triclosan “highly toxic” – to fish, that is (Weeks, 2016a). The Feds have decided the chemical is not harmful to human health and have proposed instead to bring in stricter regulations and to improve interception of the compound in wastewater treatment plants (Weeks, 2016a). While a considerable concern regarding triclosan is its toxicity to water dwellers, the chemical has the ability to accumulate in fat cells and thus reach problematic concentrations (Olaniyan et al., 2016), the decision overall is irresponsible to Canadians and the environment. Triclosan should be a banned substance in Canada.
The first question to ask is, if this chemical has been proven to be so harmful to any living thing, why would the government risk having its citizens exposed to it? Yes, the effects may differ in humans, but where is the proof that the effects won’t be worse? The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) certainly felt there was not enough evidence for triclosan’s long-term safe use, citing this as one of the reasons it decided to ban the chemical in the United States last year (2017). Scientists are also finding that long-term exposure to triclosan can be quite harmful. A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States America in 2014 found triclosan can promote the growth of liver tumors in mice and may have toxic effects on cells (Yueh et al., 2014).
Additionally, it is irresponsible and downright unethical to allow the continued production of a substance found to be harmful to any being. Aquatic organisms are an important part of aquatic ecosystems, ecosystems that are constantly interacting with humans. Fish are a food source for people and while more research on triclosan is required, consuming fish with levels of triclosan toxic to its function will likely have adverse effects. Many Canadians also love to swim in lakes in streams, Adria Vasil, who wrote Ecoholic about her research on environmentally friendly products and services in Canada, notes that triclosan was found to be one of the top 10 Stream contaminants by the US Geological Survey (2007). This may be one of the ways triclosan has infiltrated the human body, as it has been detected in breast milk and even nails (Olaniyan et al., 2016). Further, triclosans presence in our waterways is a way triclosan can continue to interact with people.
The Canadian government says triclosan exposure in Canada is too low to be of concern (Weeks, 2016b), however with the FDA’s recent ban, Maggie Macdonald of the non-profit Environmental Defense argues Canada could become a triclosan “dumping ground”, as products now banned in the States could be diverted here, increasing Canadian’s exposure to the chemical (2016).
There is also little merit in increasing regulations. The current framework means more work for manufacturers as they must develop plans to limit triclosan’s release (Weeks, 2016a) as well as for wastewater treatment plants – current wastewater treatment methods cannot remove triclosan (Dhillon et al., 2015). Wouldn’t it be more cost-effective, not to mention safer to simply ban the chemical and thus avoid the need to develop these plans?
As a final blow, the FDA reports that there isn’t even proof that triclosan is more effective than regular soap and water (2017), which means there is no reason for the chemical to be in use at all.
Triclosan is the focus of this article, though there are several other ingredients in various cosmetic and hygiene products that may harm people and the environment because of toxicity or toxic contamination. Luckily there are groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that have databases that rank product safety as well as lists of ingredients to avoid; there are also books available such as Adria Vasil’s Ecoholic and Ecoholic Body. Some of these chemicals may be safe and simply lack the research to prove it, however when it comes to the health of all, why take the risk?
Canada must be more rigorous in the monitoring and banning of unsafe ingredients in personal care products, but until then, consumers must take it upon themselves to make informed choices for both themselves and the planet.
Dhillon, G. S., Kaur, S., Pulicharla, R., Brar, S. K., Cledón, M., Verma, M., & Surampalli, R. Y.
(2015). Triclosan: Current Status, Occurrence, Environmental Risks and Bioaccumulation Potential. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(5), 5657–5684. http://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph120505657
MacDonald, M. (2017). Canada must ban harmful triclosan. Retrieved from http://environmentaldefence.ca/2017/01/06/canada-must-ban-harmful-triclosan/
Olaniyan, L. W. B., Mkwetshana, N., and Okoh, A. I. (2016). Triclosan in water, implications forhuman and environmental health. Springer Plus. 5(1), 1-17. DOI: 10.1186/s40064-016-3287-x
US Food & Drug Administration. (2017). Antibacterial soap? You can skip it -- use plain soap and water. Retrieved from http://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm378393.htm
Vasil, A. (2007). Ecoholic. Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada
Vasil, A. (2012) Ecoholic Body. Toronto, ON: Vintage Canada
Weeks, C. (2016a). Federal decision deems triclosan safe to use in consumer products. The
Weeks, C. (2016b). The FDA will ban antibacterial ingredients from soaps. What about Canada?.
Yueh, M. F., Taniguchi, K., Chen, S., Evans, R. M., Hammock, B. D., Karin, M., and Tukey, R.
H. (2014). The commonly used antimicrobial additive triclosan is a liver tumor promoter. Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States America 112 (2); published ahead of print December 23, 2014, doi:10.1073/pnas.142384411
About the Author
Biography: Maggie is a certified UN Sustainable Development Goal Advocate currently studying Environment Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. Passionate about the environment, social justice, and the way the two are interconnected. she’s always hard at work on these issues with various community organizations including Plan International Canada, The Sustainable Campus Initiative, and the UW General Equality Club. In her free time Maggie likes to read, write, and listen to live music.