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Triclosan, an antimicrobial agent commonly found in household products, should be banned, according to a Canadian environmental activist group.
Environmental Defence says most Canadians likely have worrisome levels of the substance in their bodies, so it should be outlawed.  Triclosan can be found in antibacterial soaps, hand sanitizers, and even some cosmetics, facial cleansers and toothpastes.
“About 20 years ago, there was a small number but growing number of products containing triclosan,” says Maggie MacDonald, Environmental Defence’s toxic program manager. “But now in Canada, there’s over 1,200 products.”
According to MacDonald, triclosan was first put on the market in 1969, and was registered as a pesticide that same year in the U.S. “It was first used in medical environments to sanitize medical items, but in recent years, it has really exploded in the marketplace as a chemical to put in consumer products, which is not very useful, and is harmful as well.”
Some studies of animals have found triclosan to be an endocrine disrupter, linked to thyroid problems and even cancer.
But mostly, it’s what goes down the drain that’s prompting a potential ban. “It’s a chemical that is toxic to frogs, fish and algae,” says MacDonald.
If it’s bad for fish, environmental activist Rick Smith thought it might be bad for him too. As a result, he banned all products containing triclosan from his home years ago.
Then, as an experiment over two days, he used a long list of products containing the substance. Smith says levels of triclosan in his body soared 3,000 times above what they were just 48 hours before.
The Canadian Medical Association has called for a complete ban on triclosan and Health Canada is now considering it – not because of the chemical’s effect on people, but rather, the environment.
“That really is the focus of potential action moving forward,” says Christine Normand of Health Canada’s Risk Assessment Bureau.
If you’re wondering whether a certain product contains triclosan, simply check the label for the ingredient.
The substance is added to some types of toothpaste to help fight gingivitis. Dr. Benoit Soucy of the Canadian Dental Association says, “If you’re looking at a toothpaste that has a therapeutic goal, the use of triclosan can be justified.”
But Soucy adds, “If it was to be discontinued, it wouldn’t be a problem for dentistry because we have other options to help maintain oral health… Gingivitis is something that can be handled with scrupulous oral hygiene. If you do a very good job brushing your teeth and flossing your teeth, you will not have a problem with gingivitis – whether you use a triclosan product or not.”
“There are only five toothpastes in Canada that contain triclosan, so it’s really not a big contributor to that source of material.” Soucy stresses, “When you’re using toothpaste, you’re not supposed to swallow the toothpaste, so the risk of absorption is really, really minimal.”
Experts also say the addition of triclosan to soap (therefore labelled as anti-bacterial soap) is unnecessary, as washing with regular soap and water is just as effective.
While previous research has suggested triclosan causes hormonal changes or antibiotic resistance that could lead to superbugs, a recent study couldn’t find any evidence of direct health impacts on humans.
“The best source of information that we have at this point is the Health Canada report that was published about a month ago. And according to that report, there is no human harm from the use of triclosan,” Soucy says.
However, he cautions, “There is environmental harm which leads to the need to reduce the overall usage of triclosan.”
MacDonald points out there is an absence of research as to how triclosan affects humans in the long-term. “Now that it is in thousands of consumer products, that little amount you are being exposed to (from) several products over the course of many years, the effects of that chronic long-term exposure at a low grade, we don’t know (what they are),” says MacDonald.
“I am quite concerned with products used in showers. Soaps, washing products, body wash, deodorants, chemicals that you are putting up against skin and absorbed into skin.”
And she too is worried about triclosan’s effects on the environment and our water. “Water treatment plants have different types of treatments that can get rid of triclosan, but once it enters those waterways, that is an issue.”
MacDonald also said triclosan can react with chlorine in water to produce chloroform, a human carcinogen. If triclosan reacts with sunlight, it can break down to produce dioxins.