Update on Triclosan

Triclosan is a chemical that can be added to products such as anti-bacterial soaps to prevent or reduce bacterial infection.

Sounds great until you hear about risks to aquatic life and probable lack of effectiveness in many cases.

Help me understand bacteria
Bacteria are single-celled organisms that basically live everywhere. Most bacteria are harmless and some can really be beneficial in helping with vital functions for organisms and the environment. For instance they can help humans digest food or plants to grow in soil. However, there are good reasons to fear some bacteria which can cause serious infection and are most commonly treated through antibiotics or immunization. Preventing the growth of harmful bacteria through additives like triclosan seems a good idea, so what’s the downside?
Risking harm to aquatic life, with little evidence of upside.
In the Fall of 2016, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to ban triclosan and several other antibacterial additives in consumer antibacterial hand soaps because the soap manufacturers could not provide any compelling evidence that the ingredients were safe or effective at reducing germs (effective Fall 2017). The FDA was under pressure to seriously look at triclosan due to partial bans in Europe and several studies about their potential risk to endocrine functionality. While there has been no conclusive evidence that this chemical is harmful to humans (some think because of the ethics complexities associated with doing a study like that), there has been research that indicates that the chemical alters hormones in animals. For example:
  • According to Rebbecca Ives of Michigan State university (in this Great Lakes Echo article by Tong Xu, Feb/16),
      “Changes between the life stages of fish, includes hatching from eggs, are regulated by hormones. If you disrupt the hormone pathways, a fish may not successfully reach the next stage in development, or the female/male ratio of the population may be skewed. This may cause a population of fish to have a much smaller number of reproducing adults. And that would lead to a much smaller population of fish in general. A lot of other animals, including humans, eat fish, but with a smaller population of fish, fewer fish will be available to eat.”
  • In June 2015, the agency responsible for chemical oversight in the European Union announced that the antibacterial pesticide, triclosan, is toxic and bioaccumulative, and will be phased-out for hygienic uses and replaced by more suitable alternatives. According to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), “[N]o safe use could be demonstrated for the proposed use of Triclosan.” (Source). * It should be noted that phase-out products in question would apply only to hygienic uses (for example, some products qualify as medicinal and aren’t subject to the ban).
But is triclosan effective?
Much of the focus seems to be on its lack of effectiveness in soap type products. The reasoning being, triclosan is likely effective in wound treatment where it might stay for a suitable period of time and help bacteria from growing. However, many of the antibacterial products are immediately washed off…therefore leaving the percentage of triclosan on the body too small to be effective and soap manufacturers haven’t been able to prove otherwise.
Most of it goes down the drain…

Unfortunately, water treatment facilities aren’t really equipped to deal with removing triclosan from the water. Facilities may remove a portion of the chemical, but are not designed to remove all of it. Although releases of the chemical into the water are very small; many small releases build up and and do not degrade easily. When coming into contact with other chemicals, dioxin can be formed which may lead to the hormonal changes that affect reproduction in aquatic life.
So what is Canada doing?
The substance will not be banned right now for soaps, but there are important measures being proposed.

    (It should be noted that many manufacturers have voluntarily removed this chemical from their products, but there are still about 1600 products containing this chemical sold in Canada, and 130 personal care products regulated as drug products. Drug products are not subject to Health Canada’s limits on the concentration of triclosan to 0.03 per cent in mouthwashes and 0.3 per cent in other cosmetics.)

Canada will work to limit the amount of triclosan released to aquatic environments from consumer products. Specifically, as per watercanada.net, “The Government of Canada is considering implementing a notice requiring the preparation and implementation of Pollution Prevention Plans under Section 56 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA) with the objective of reducing the quantity of triclosan released to the aquatic environment as a result of the use by consumers products containing triclosan imported into and formulated in Canada.”

UPDATE: Feb 2017.
In the fall of 2016, The Canadian government proposed an order to add triclosan to the toxic substances list under the Environmental Protection Act as it is a threat to aquatic life. Certain restrictions were proposed to limit the release from soap and other products into waterways. Government link. This underwent public comment until January 25th 2017.

On February 8th 2017, several environmental organizations expressed disappointment with the final outcome of the triclosan assessment and final decision. The Georgian Bay Association was a signatory to a letter that urged the government of Canada to do more than add triclosan to the Toxic Substances list, and does not support non-regulatory Prevention Plans (P2). This letter, “Environment and Health Groups’ Statement on triclosan: Call for Canadian Government to Prohibit Triclosan in all Consumer Products to protect the Environment and Human Health” details several arguments that the limitations proposed under P2 are an “inadequate management tool to protect the environment”. They are recommending that the government ban triclosan in consumer products among other recommendations. To see a copy of their letter, please visit http://bit.ly/2lPCfy2http://bit.ly/2lPCfy2.

Your buying decisions matter
If you are concerned about your use of this chemical in household products, look for products in these categories and scrutinize the label to see if it lists triclosan as an ingredient:
  • antiperspirants/deodorants
  • some toothpastes
  • cleansers
  • hand sanitizers
  • laundry detergent,
  • facial tissues,
  • Other products – sometimes advertised as “anti-bacterial” to resist bacteria, fungus, mildew and odors. These products include garbage bags, toys, linens, mattresses, toilet fixtures, clothing, furniture fabric, and paints.