The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Thursday it was conducting a safety review of triclosan, a widely used antibacterial chemical that can be found in many consumer products from soap and toothpaste to toys. While triclosan isn't currently known to be hazardous to humans, the FDA said, recent scientific studies merit further review of the ingredient.
Triclosan, a chemical registered by the Environmental Protection Agency as a pesticide, is added to products to reduce or prevent bacterial contamination. It has been in use for over three decades and by 2003-2004, scientists at the Centers for Disease Control detected it in the urine of nearly 75% of the people tested.
What is perhaps most disturbing is that the various government agencies all say that the effect of triclosan on the health of humans is unknown. For such a widely used chemical, one would expect better government oversight.
U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) requested the review. "Despite the fact that this chemical is found in everything from soaps to socks, there are many troubling questions about triclosan's effectiveness and potentially harmful effects, especially for children," said Markey in a statement in which he also published the EPA's response.
For one thing, recent animal studies have shown that triclosan alters hormone regulation. While animal studies don't always apply to humans, the EPA said that more research on the matter is warranted to determine the whether there are potential health risks. This research, it added, is under way.
Environmental groups also claim triclosan is now being found in surface water and fish. The chemical has been on their radar for quite some time: In a joint petition filed last year with the FDA, the organizations Food & Water Watch and Beyond Pesticides warned that triclosan "may be transformed into dioxin and chloroform when exposed to sunlight under certain conditions, thus creating the threat of cancer development."
Further, the FDA said some studies also raised concerns that triclosan contributes to making bacteria antibiotic-resistant. It added that it doesn't have evidence that washing with antibacterial soaps containing triclosan provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.
"I call upon the federal government to ban the use of triclosan in consumer soaps and hand-washes, products intended for use by children, and products intended to come into contact with food," Markey said. For now, he will have to be satisfied with a joint effort by the FDA and EPA to review the abundance of studies on the substance. The FDA said the findings of its review should be ready in spring 2011.
FDA, EPA to Review Safety of Triclosan, a Common Antibacterial Ingredient