An anti-bacterial battle - the trouble with triclosan
Note: This story was first published in 2013 on ThePlatform.org.
Bacteria are bad - right? Or is our incessant anti-bacterial warfare the real risk?
Have you ever heard of triclosan, a common anti-bacterial agent used in a frightening array of consumer products - from the anti-bacterial gels so prevalent in public places these days to cosmetics, kitchen products, clothes and even paint?
The mis-use of this substance, that should (according to health professionals) only be used in hospitals, could lead to the development of new anti-biotic resistant super bugs, pollution of our water and health problems from a build up of triclosan in our blood.
With colds and viruses sweeping through populations, few of us escape completely unscathed. Not being hysterical about germs, I have always stuck to my grandmothers priceless advice: wash your hands with soap and water straight away after being out in public.
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 was introduced in 2013. Denmark has been tasked with researching triclosan as part of this and to make recommendations for its use going forward. 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?
Don’t buy products advertising themselves as ‘anti-bacterial’, ‘medicated’ or ‘anti-fungal’ unless you really need them. Chances are they contain triclosan.
Check the ingredients of goods, but beware, triclosan comes in many disguises. These are some of the other names for it: Irgasan, Actisan, Tinosan, Lexol, Ster-Zac, Irgacid, Irgaguard, Irga-Care, BioFresh, Cloxifenolum and Microban.
Avoid anti-bacterial gels. Health professionals, such as Senior Doctor Anne Vinther Kjerulf from Statens Seruminstitut in Denmark, recommend that these gels are only used for specific tasks within the health sector. Wash your hands instead – it works just as well.
Visit beyondpesticides.org and sign the individual pledge to support the campaign to end consumer use of this hazardous chemical. There are also instructions for how you can take this even further by encouraging your local municipality, institution or employer to not buy products with triclosan.
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.