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Chemical threat may make for an unsafe pair of hands

Antibacterial soap and hand wash are everyday hygiene products to which most consumers do not give a second thought.
Image courtesy of Feelart /
Image courtesy of Feelart /

But it is time they did. There is growing evidence that they damage the environment, risk increased bacterial resistance - and pose a threat to your health.

Even worse, scientists say they are no better at preventing illness than ordinary soap and water.

It is not a view shared by the billion-dollar antibacterial industry, which promotes these products to a market obsessed with killing germs.

The industry claims that in-depth data proves that antimicrobial soap containing the chemicals triclosan and its cousin, triclocarban, is more effective than plain soap.

The controversial chemicals, which before the '90s were used only in hospitals, can now be found in hundreds of products on South African shelves - from bath soaps, baby wipes and mouthwash to toothpaste, face cleansers and kiddies' foam bath.

The products include popular hygiene soaps such as Dettol, Savlon, Protex and Lifebuoy.

But their days may be numbered.

FDA regulation

Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration, the country's consumer watchdog, proposed a bold new rule that will force the industry to prove the safety and effectiveness of these products or stop selling them.

The proposed rule relates only to soaps, hand liquids and body washes at this stage; toothpaste, hand sanitisers, wipes or antibacterial products used in healthcare settings are not included.

The FDA, prompted by growing scientific data and concerns on the part of healthcare and consumer groups, said long-term exposure - through the skin - to triclosan and triclocarban could pose health risks such as bacterial resistance and hormonal changes.

Under the proposed rule, manufacturers who want to continue marketing antibacterial products will have to provide additional safety data, including information showing that these products are superior in preventing illness or reducing infection.

In December, when the announcement was made, FDA spokeswoman Sandra Kweder said: "While the FDA continues to collect additional information on antibacterial hand soaps and body washes, we encourage consumers to make an educated choice about what products they choose to use.

"Washing with plain soap and running water is one of the most important steps consumers can take to avoid getting sick and to prevent spreading germs to others."

There was no evidence, the FDA said, that antibacterial soaps were any more effective, and the risks associated with their long-term daily use may outweigh the benefits.

US manufacturers, which have subsidiaries in countries around the world, including South Africa, have until 2016 to prove their case.

Consumer advocates and healthcare and environmental groups want the chemicals banned because, they claim:

  • Even though triclosan kills slightly more bacteria than normal soap, there is no data as yet proving that this reduces infection rates;

  • Antibacterial soaps have the potential to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making the treatment of certain infections difficult;

  • Animal studies have shown that triclosan and triclocarban are endocrine disruptors, with the potential to cause infertility, artificially advanced early puberty, obesity and cancer. These same effects have not yet been found in humans, but the FDA calls the animal studies "a concern";

  • Studies suggest that children with prolonged exposure to triclosan could have more chance of developing allergies, including peanut allergies and hay fever.

    Scientists speculate that this could be a result of reduced exposure to bacteria. The human immune system can only develop and function properly if it is exposed to bacteria.

    A 2008 study found triclosan present in the urine of 75% of Americans over the age of five; and

  • Triclosan and Triclocarban that get into the sewerage system is bad for the environment.

esearch has shown that small quantities can persist after treatment at sewage plants, and the chemical has been found in streams and other bodies of water.

A 2009 survey of bottlenose dolphins off the coast of South Carolina and Florida found concerning levels of the chemical in their blood.

The good news for local consumers is that some of the same manufacturers which defended the use of triclosan and triclocarban in the past - including when I first wrote about this issue in 2011 - have since had a change of heart.

Johnson & Johnson South Africa said it was in the process of phasing out triclosan in its products and would have a replacement by the end of the year.

The chemical can still be found in its Savlon soap and hand wash and in several facial washes (see list).

"Our plans to restrict or phase out certain ingredients are driven by changing consumer sentiment and expectations," said corporate affairs head Laura Nel.

"We understand that consumers might have concerns about some ingredients even when scientists and regulators verify their safety.

"Consumers have told us that trust sometimes means going beyond just numbers - that it's more than science measuring the safety of our products," she said.

Removal of chemicals

Reckitt Benckiser in South Africa, the maker of Dettol, said it started removing triclosan from its products in 2009, well ahead of the FDA's latest announcement "as our own work showed that was the best step to take".

However, it still uses triclocarban in its Dettol hygiene soap.

Unilever South Africa, along with Colgate-Palmolive South Africa, have no immediate plans to ditch the chemicals.

"Triclosan is an effective antibacterial ingredient which we use in a limited number of products where it has a clear role in maintaining health and hygiene," said Unilever spokeswoman Unathi Mgobozi.

She said although Unilever was confident that triclosan was safe at the level used in its products, it would continue to monitor any developments and take part in research for an "enhanced understanding of the safety of this ingredient".

Colgate-Palmolive South Africa's marketing director, Del Levin, said its Protex bar soap, liquid soap and shower gel, which contained triclocarban, were safe and had clinically proven antibacterial efficacy.

The Shoprite Group and Pick n Pay, which both sell house brands containing the chemicals, concur.

Labelling risks

Dis-Chem, on the other hand, is less convinced. Chief executive Ivan Saltzman accepts triclosan could be harmful, but says there's no guarantee ingredients replacing it would be less so.

"It is extensively and widely used in very big brands," said Saltzman. "[But] in light of the FDA findings, we will in the meantime [in addition to the ingredients list] label our product boldly that it contains triclosan, along with the risks."

Woolworths does not use either chemical in any of its house-brand products. Ditto Clicks, which removed triclosan from its hygiene range more than two years ago.

Source: Sunday Times


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