While triclosan, a chemical substance used in antibacterial products, may appear beneficial, the reality is far murkier
With the Norovirus and plenty of colds tearing their way through the UK population, few of us have escaped unscathed this winter. Not being hysterical about germs, I have always stuck to my grandmothers priceless advice: wash your hands straight away after being out in public.
However, just before Christmas, I caved in and bought an anti-bacterial gel to carry with me in my handbag. There seemed to be a vast amount of germs flying around and being sick over the holidays was not on my agenda. Ironically I got sick anyway. It wasn’t until later that I realised how counter-productive and harmful those anti-bacterial gels can be. This is largely due to the misuse of one particular ingredient: Triclosan.
Triclosan was invented for use in the health-care sector by chemical company Ciba in the 1960’s and was first used commercially in a surgical scrub kit in 1972. It showed great anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties and was set to become essential in hospitals and especially in surgery.
The invention of penicillin was a huge stride forward for humankind. Yet we now seem to be in the process of facilitating bacteria to evolve into antibiotic-resistant super strains, while we fill our bodies with toxins and pollute our water.
There are indications that a triclosan build-up in the blood stream of humans may disrupt the correct functioning of the thyroid hormone and evidence shows that deposits of triclosan by-products in waste water sediment is toxic to aquatic organisms. These by-products get into the water mostly through unrestrained use of biocide agents such as triclosan in antibacterial soap and cleaning products.
Triclosan is also added to a wide range of consumer merchandise including cosmetics, furniture, clothes, paint, kitchen appliances and toys. Putting the label ‘anti-bacterial’ or ‘medicated’ on a product has worked a treat to pull the wool over the eyes of consumers, lulling us into a false sense of security.
Adding triclosan to soap, for example, may seem like a genius idea. However according to the Clinical Journal of Infectious Diseases, 2007, it is no more efficient at removing common bacteria and dirt than regular soap. The subconscious message sent to us is that normal soap is no longer good enough, whereas the exact opposite is true. Not so genius after all, unless the objective is making a profit, not protecting public health.
MRSA, the best known of the super bugs, is a bacterial strain resistant to most antibiotics. It currently claims hundreds of lives in the UK every year. At the moment, triclosan is effectively used to avoid the transfer of MRSA in hospitals and the fear is that the over-use of the agent in general society will enable the bacteria to mutate into triclosan-resistant MRSA. Imagine us no longer being able to effectively treat pneumonia? The cost of extended hospital stays will be damaging enough without even considering the increased death toll. Not an appealing scenario.
It should be noted that official research on triclosan is divided, as it often is on issues involving things that make a lot of money for international corporations. Triclosan undoubtedly saves lives when used appropriately, but this benefit is at risk of being undermined.
The good news is that, after intense debate over the last decade, new regulation surrounding biocides in the EU is being brought in as of 1 September 2013. Denmark has been tasked with researching triclosan as part of this and to make recommendations for its use going forward. As with most things EU however, the practical outcomes of this will most likely take some time to reach consumers.
In the meantime, Danish, Swedish and Norwegian Environmental Protection Agencies are advising consumers to avoid products containing triclosan. Some companies are also starting to pay attention with Johnson & Johnson set to phase out triclosan by 2015.
There is no public health warning on triclosan in the UK at the moment. A spokesman from the Health Protection Agency said: “Based on the studies seen and reviewed by the HPA we are of the opinion that triclosan has a very low acute toxicity when taken orally, or absorbed through the skin.” They will however take into account new scientific research as it is published from around the world.
An interesting example is from Sweden who advised its citizens to avoid triclosan in 2000. Research shows that a sample group of women in the age group of 31-45 in Australia have twice the amount of triclosan in their blood stream than a corresponding sample group in Sweden.
The HPA could be correct in their view that triclosan has a very low acute toxicity to humans, but what are the long term effects? With the research jury out, are we really willing to take the chance on something as important as this?
In the absence of UK government guidance, what actions can we, as ordinary citizens, take?
What is certain, is that bacteria are an integral part of our planet’s ecology and they will continue to evolve no matter how many obstacles we put in their way. Helping them along with unnecessary use of resistance-building substances is short-sighted and, in my opinion, highly irresponsible.
Through public information, research and upcoming regulations the abuse of triclosan may be curbed before it’s too late. The actions of citizens are a key part of this equation and we hope you will be a part of the solution by making a few small changes to your everyday life.
Image from: http://news.ucdavis.edu/search/news_detail.lasso?id=10301
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