Decades-old question: Is antibacterial soap safe?


Federal health regulators are deciding whether triclosan — the germ-killing ingredient found in many antibacterial liquid soaps and body washes sold in the U.S. — is harmful. (The Associated Press)

Published: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 1:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 at 1:37 p.m.

Washington

It's a chemical that's been in U.S. households for more than 40 years, from the body wash in your bathroom shower to the knives on your kitchen counter to the bedding in your baby's basinet.

But federal health regulators are just now deciding whether triclosan — the germ-killing ingredient found in an estimated 75 percent of antibacterial liquid soaps and body washes sold in the U.S. — is ineffective, or worse, harmful.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is planning to deliver a review this year of whether triclosan is safe. The ruling, which will determine whether triclosan continues to be used in household cleaners, could have implications for a $1 billion industry that includes hundreds of antibacterial products from toothpaste to toys.

The agency's review comes amid growing pressure from lawmakers, consumer advocates and others who are concerned about the safety of triclosan. Recent studies of triclosan in animals have led scientists to worry that it could increase the risk of infertility, early puberty and other hormone-related problems in humans.

“To me it looks like the risks outweigh any benefit associated with these products right now,” said Allison Aiello, professor at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. “At this point, it's just looking like a superfluous chemical.”

The concerns over triclosan offer a sobering glimpse at a little-known fact: Many chemicals used in everyday household products have never been formally approved by U.S. health regulators. That's because many germ-killing chemicals were developed decades ago before there were laws requiring scientific review of cleaning ingredients.

The controversy also highlights how long it can take the federal government to review the safety of such chemicals. It's not uncommon for the process to drag on for years, since regulators must review volumes of research and take comments from the public on each draft.

In the case of triclosan, Congress passed a law in 1972 requiring that the FDA set guidelines for dozens of common antibacterial chemicals found in over-the-counter soaps and scrubs. The guidelines function like a cookbook for manufacturers, detailing which chemicals can be used in what products, and in what amounts.

In 1978, the FDA published its first tentative guidelines for chemicals used in liquid hand soaps and washes. The draft stated that triclosan was “not generally recognized as safe and effective,” because regulators could not find enough scientific research demonstrating its safety and effectiveness.

Some Americans are shocked that the FDA has taken so long. Mallory Smith is troubled to learn that the government has never confirmed the safety of antibacterial soap's key ingredient.

Smith, who works for the federal government, says she keeps antibacterial soap in the kitchen to clean her hands after she's handled raw meat.

“As a regular consumer, I rely on the government to identify products that are safe for me to use,” Smith said.

Others are less surprised by the government's multi-decade review. “It sounds like a typical government agency to me: totally unproductive,” said David Fisher, who sells restaurant equipment in Arizona.

Ironically, triclosan first became widely used because it was considered safer than an older antibacterial ingredient, hexachlorophene. That chemical was banned from household items in 1972 after FDA scientists discovered that toxic levels could be absorbed through the skin. Several infant deaths in France were connected to baby powder that contained unsafe levels of the chemical, due to a manufacturing error.

Triclosan was initially used in hospitals in the 1970s as a scrub for surgeons preparing to perform an operation. It was also used to coat the surfaces of catheters, stitches and other surgical instruments.

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