Antibacterial chemicals are polluting our waterways

Antibacterial chemicals are polluting our waterways

August 1, 2014 Bev Thorpe Originally published in Blogs

Antibacterial chemicals are polluting our waterways

Most people are unaware of how widespread triclosan and triclocarban chemicals are in their daily lives. Many products labelled as ‘antibacterial’, ‘fights odours’ or ‘kills germs’ may contain triclosan or tricocarban. In fact by 2001, 76% of commercial liquid hand soaps in the U.S. contained triclosan and a wide variety of cosmetics, drugs, clothes, school products and kitchenware also now contain this antibacterial chemical. Plastic products such as toys, toothbrushes, shower curtains and cutting boards may contain triclosan as well as mattresses, carpets, tents, and even garbage cans. Triclocarban may be  less widely used than triclosan but it is found in 84% of all antimicrobial bar soaps sold in the US.

Today, triclosan and tricocarban rank in the list of top global contaminants and both compounds are now detectable in house dust worldwide, in ocean water, and locations as remote as the water loop of spacecraft! Triclosan is found in 97% of breast milk samples and U.S. streams have a 60 – 100% likelihood of containing detectable quantities of both these chemicals. Is this a problem? It turns out this is a BIG problem from a human health impact, an environmental impact and is a classic case of our failure to regulate common chemicals in consumer products.

Our Health

To better understand how these chemicals may be affecting our health, I and my colleagues at the Canadian Environmental Law Association  decided to do GreenScreen assessments of both these chemicals. GreenScreen assessments look at the inherent hazards of a chemical against a comprehensive list of 18 human and environmental health categories. It turns out both these chemicals are reproductive toxicants as well as being endocrine disruptors based on animal studies that demonstrate affects to the thyroid and sex hormones. In addition, both chemicals are very highly hazardous to living organisms in the aquatic environment.

This is very bad news for our lakes and streams, considering that 95% of triclosan and the vast majority of triclocarban are flushed down the drain where triclosan then goes on to form other toxic by-products including dioxins.  In fact it was the presence of dioxins in Minnesota’s lakes that resulted in the state taking action. On May 16, 2014 Minnesota became the first U.S. state to ban the retail sale of any consumer product containing triclosan that is used for sanitizing or hand and body cleansing. The ban comes into effect January 1, 2017.

What do regulators say?

The story of how both these chemicals became such wide contaminants demonstrates again why chemical policy reform in the U.S. (and Canada) is urgently needed. Triclosan and triclocarban were patented in the 1960s mostly for use in health care settings.  But in 1994 when the FDA removed antibacterial soaps from the drug category, the use of triclosan in consumer products dramatically increased. By 2002, triclosan was listed as a top 10 water contaminant while concern grew at the same time that the use of triclosan and triclocarban in consumer soaps and personal care products did not show any benefit, particularly when according to both the US FDA and the Public health Agency of Canada “soaps with added antibacterial ingredients, such as triclosan, are no more effective than the mechanical action of washing with plain soap and water to remove bacteria from hands.”

In addition to this concern, both the American and Canadian Medical Associations have called upon our respective governments to ban the sale of household antibacterial products due to the risk of antimicrobial resistance.  It is clear our regulators need to be prioritizing action on chemicals such as these, which are known to be both  highly persistent and toxic in the environment, and requiring safer substitutes – assuming the chemical’s function is needed at all.

California has begun to take just this approach in its Safer Consumer Products Regulations  where manufacturers need to answer two questions: 1) Is this chemical necessary? and 2) Is there a safer alternative? No product manufacturer should be using these antibacterial chemicals unless a clear and strong case can be made that these biocides are indeed needed in the product in the first place. In fact the FDA has issued such a challenge to manufacturers to provide more substantial data by December 2014 to demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of antibacterial soaps.

Next steps

Meanwhile, while we should lobby our regulators to take action on triclosan and its close  relative, triclocarban, companies and retailers need to be taking responsible action. That is why triclosan is listed on the Hazardous One Hundred list of chemicals of concern by the Mind the Store campaign to help retailers understand which chemicals need to be prioritized for elimination from their suppliers’ products.

The phase out of products with triclosan can indeed be done.  For example, since 2005 Co-op DK, Denmark’s largest retailer of fast moving consumer goods has banned the use of triclosan from products on its shelves with one exception for Colgate Total toothpaste which must be clearly labelled that it contains triclosan to prevent gingivitis. Seeing the writing on the wall, some brands are at the forefront of eliminating triclosan from their product lines including Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Avon. But more needs to be done.  In the meantime consumers need to be reading labels and playing ‘chemical detective’ to avoid these chemicals.  Beyond Pesticides and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Product Database lists many products that contain triclosan.

For more information on these chemicals and what needs to be done, download the report Chemicals in Consumer Products are draining Trouble into the Great Lakes Ecosystem:  GreenScreen®Assessment Shows Triclosan and Triclocarban Should be Avoided.

Don’t forget to lobby your governments, companies and retailers to take action on these hazardous and unnecessary chemicals.

Minnesota becomes first state to ban triclosan image

While the antibacterial ingredient known as triclosan continues to be used widely in soaps, toothpaste and other personal care products, Minnesota has passed a law making it the first state to ban the chemical from such items. Scientific studies have found triclosan in lake and river sediment, and raise questions about its ability to increase antibiotic resistance and potential for hormonal effects. The FDA says there’s no evidence soaps containing triclosan are more effective than those that don’t and is now reviewing the chemical’s safety. Minnesota’s ban takes effect in 2017.


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Chemicals in Consumer Products - Press Release image

Your soap may be toxic when flushed down the drain:  New GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals Tool Identifies Hazardous Chemicals in Common Household Products 

(Toronto, Canada) The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) and Clean Production Action (CPA) today released a comprehensive assessment of the hazards posed by two chemicals commonly used as antibacterial agents in consumer products ranging from liquid soaps and toothpaste to kitchen cutting boards. GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals, a globally recognized tool for comparative chemical hazard assessment, was used for the first time to assess the environmental and human health profile of triclosan and triclocarban. 

The GreenScreen assessment found that triclosan is a Benchmark 1 substance – a chemical to be avoided. Triclocarban is ranked as a Benchmark 2 with very high aquatic toxicity.  The groups are seeking a prohibition of these chemicals because of their impact to rivers and lakes.

“What’s particularly alarming is the range of impacts these chemicals are having -- from damaging aquatic ecosystems, including the Great Lakes, to interfering with human endocrine systems.  When you realize that 95% of triclosan and the vast majority of triclocarban ends up going down the drain, the fact that both pose a very high toxic hazard to aquatic organisms is very bad news for our lakes and rivers,” noted CELA researcher Fe de Leon. 

“In the aquatic environment, we know that triclosan goes on to generate dioxins and other hazardous substances in water,” added de Leon, who commissioned the GreenScreen reports as part of CELA’s Great Lakes research program. “The Canadian government needs to step up and prohibit the use of these unnecessary chemicals in consumer products and we are asking that States and Provinces, particularly around the Great Lakes, take action as well,” she added.

“The advantage of the GreenScreen assessment tool is that it comprehensively looks at the full range of impacts – from human health to environmental harm – of a substance and allows users and regulators to better understand if a chemical should be avoided, substituted or can continue to be used.  This is a better alternative to the often siloed approach taken by regulators, which can send unclear signals to the market. For example, Health Canada says that triclosan is safe for humans – despite its endocrine system effects -- but Environment Canada considers it toxic and highly damaging to the natural environment. With over 1,600 consumer products containing triclosan and hundreds more containing triclocarban, consumers are left in the dark about how toxic these antibacterial chemicals are in the environment,” says Bev Thorpe, Consulting Co-Director of Clean Production Action, the host organization for GreenScreen.

 “Both the Public Health Agency of Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration have stated that soaps with added antibacterial ingredients, such as triclosan, are no more effective than washing with plain soap and water, which makes this environmental and health damage almost entirely preventable,” said Kathleen Cooper, Senior Researcher at CELA. 

In addition, growing concern about antibiotic resistance from the overuse of antibacterials has been expressed by both the Canadian and American Medical Associations and the European Union.  Recently some companies including Avon, Proctor and Gamble, and Johnson & Johnson, have publicly declared their intention to phase out triclosan.  

In May 2014, Minnesota became the first US state to ban --as of January 2017-- the retail sale of any cleaning or personal care consumer product that contains triclosan. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given manufacturers until December 2014 to demonstrate “a clinical case” for the use of antibacterial soaps.  The Canadian government issued a draft recommendation in 2012 declaring triclosan a toxic chemical, but to date no action has been taken. 

“As triclosan comes under increasing scrutiny, it is essential that we do not replace it with another hazardous chemical, like triclocarban. You would think this would be common sense but the recent case of dangerous plastic microbeads in cosmetic products, demonstrate that many manufacturers are still not anticipating the potential harm chemicals may have in the environment” notes Thorpe.   “We are calling on companies and regulators to stop the toxic treadmill of ongoing hazardous chemical use by using tools like GreenScreen to better understand the hazards of any chemical before it is put into consumer goods.”

A summary set of recommendations and complete GreenScreen reports are available at and Clean Production Action's website.

For more information:

Fe de Leon, Canadian Environmental Law Association, Researcher, 416-960-2284 ext 223

Beverley Thorpe, Clean Production Action, Consulting Co-Director, 647-341-6688

Kathleen Cooper, Canadian Environmental Law Association Senior Researcher, 705-341-2488