Photo courtesy of Daniela Hartmann

The Clinic is an ongoing collaboration between the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF, Mission Loc@l and UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Prescriptions is a blog about health written by scientists at the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF.

My son came home from the orthodontist, carrying the  obligatory bag of dental goodies.  He could have cared less, but I was imprinted early on by my blue-collar, depression-surviving grandparents to horde such free items. I eagerly dug in:  dental floss!  toothbrushes!  And then –  to my dismay – a box of Colgate Total.  A background in environmental health had left me all too aware that lurking in this toothpaste was a familiar, but extra unwanted ingredient: triclosan.

Triclosan has only been in use since 1972, but today it shows up in many of the products we use every day.  It has antibacterial and antifungal properties, so it’s gradually made its way into almost every product that you wouldn’t want fungus or bacteria on: soap, cosmetics, and deodorant, but also countertops, and kitchenware.

Triclosan is so widespread that that data from the Centers from Disease Control shows that more than 80 percent of the U.S. population has triclosan residue in their bodies. Between 2003 and 2006, the levels of that residue rose in every age group tested.

Why are people are concerned about Triclosan?  Studies indicate triclosan can interfere with thyroid hormone levels.  Thyroid hormones are important for…well, almost everything. They regulate metabolism and body temperature, and they are critical for cardiovascular health, and the proper development of the brain and the heart [PDF].

Were my family and I already carrying around some triclosan? Almost certainly. But I had recently read the results of a study of 12 adults who used Colgate Total twice a day. After two weeks, the levels of triclosan in their bodies was about 100 times greater than when they started – just from brushing their teeth.

Was their health harmed by this?  It is hard to tell, because the authors only give a little bit of information from which to evaluate the study.  But even so, a study that evaluates any harm caused to adults is not the same as evaluating what would happen in my tweener son, since eveloping children are more vulnerable from exposure to environmental chemicals than adults are.

I’m not the only one concerned Congressman Edward Markey (D, Mass.) has called for a ban on triclosan, particularly in products used by children 12 and under. And while the FDA maintains that there is no proof that triclosan is harmful to humans, it has also stated that it is under an “ongoing scientific and regulatory review” due to research that has come out since triclosan’s last assessment, in 1997.

But what about the other uses of triclosan, like in soap?  As it turns out, using plain soap is good enough.  Guidance provided by an FDA advisory panel in 2005 stated that antibacterial soaps and washes are no more effective at preventing illness than plain soap and water.

The American Medical Association has concluded that “there is little evidence to support the use of antimicrobials in consumer products such as topical hand lotions and soaps” and before going on to add that antimicrobials  might actually make us sicker in the long run – by spurring the development of  resistant bacteria.

So, what to do with a free item that I am loath to throw out?  I’ve decided I’ll use it as a learning tool when I go out to talk about environmental chemicals. It’s just a small tube, and its effects are still unknown, but it’s a good example of why I think it would be a good idea to fully test chemicals before they go on the market, rather than test them on my kids.

Tracey J. Woodruff, is Director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF.

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