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The Sunny Side of The FDA's Triclosan Ban: How This New Law Will Make Us Cleaner and Greener

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The FDA’s ban on triclosan and triclocarban, two toxic ingredients common in antibacterial soaps, has been the talk of the skincare industry since September 2. Companies that rely on these chemicals now have one year to adjust their formulas, long accused of promoting adverse health conditions—tainted breast milk, bacterial resistance, and endocrine damage included.

But human health is just one part of the equation. Triclosan also seeps into outdoor land far easier than most other chemical agents, wreaking havoc on our surrounding flora, fauna, and waterways. Unfortunately, the extent of this damage slips most of our minds while we’re washing up.

Below, we answer a few questions consumers might have about the greener side of the FDA ban:

I use antibacterial soap in the shower, not in my backyard. How does it get outside?

Let’s first demonstrate prevalence of triclosan in our environment. Pre-ban, the chemical was used in nearly 40 percent of all consumer antibacterial soap and cleanser products. From there, roughly 95 percent is flushed into residential drainage systems (i.e. washed away in our sinks and showers). Triclosan also happens to be the #1 contaminant to slip through wastewater treatment processes.

The end result? Lakes, ponds, rivers, beaches, and marshes saturated with a risky chemical—one that is lipophilic, or readily absorbed into fatty tissues. It’s not very tough to imagine the ease with which triclosan then makes its way into the systems of plants, animals, and humans, bioaccumulating (i.e. magnifying) at each level.

Oh no! I forgot that water flushed down the drain doesn’t just disappear. Which critters are bearing the burden of my beauty routine?

Don’t beat yourself up—it’s all too easy to ignore one’s footprint from the comfort of our indoor havens. But, for years of dumping triclosan down the drain, we should probably all apologize to:

  • Fish: When placed in water for a full week, fish showed a dramatic reduction in swimming activity, even in predator-prey simulations.

  • Crustaceans: Our shellfish friends have an especially low threshold for triclosan. Amounts in the parts-per-trillion range are enough to start killing them off.

  • Mice: Even trace amounts of the chemical caused immediate heart failure, promoted tumor growth, and reduced leg muscle functioning when injected into mice, according to a 2012 study.

  • Bullfrogs: Triclosan disrupts the thyroid hormone in amphibians, leading to reproductive defects, as shown in this bullfrog study.

  • Our own progeny: A 2010 University of Florida study found that triclosan absorbed through the skin and mouth can mess with estrogen metabolization in women, disrupting enzymes during pregnancy.

Triclosan also infects the waterways themselves. It is converted into the compound dioxin when exposed to sunlight in an aqueous environment, rendering the water it infiltrates highly toxic. (Triclosan can similarly combine with chlorine in tap water to make chloroform, a noted carcinogen!)

Algae in water is extremely sensitive to triclosan, as numerous studies indicate. This is a legitimate cause for concern since algae is a keystone species in aquatic environments, acting as first-step producers, coloring coral reefs, and feeding lakeside crawlers (like earthworms). In other words, algae is essential to a healthy body of water—we can’t really afford to feed it poison.

Is this affecting our food?

You bet. And not in a good way. Triclosan tends to sneak into sewage systems and transform into oily biosolids, or “sewage sludge” (gross, we know). These biosolids are then recycled onto agricultural land, where they are taken up by plants like corn and soy.

As you can imagine, this process tangentially exposes the American stomach to a very toxic chemical.

The bright side - A little knowledge is a lot of power.

The only way to prevent the mass proliferation of triclosan in nature is likely to ban it altogether—a law that, luckily, the FDA has just passed. (Hurray!)

Now that we’re entering a post-triclosan world, we can all apply the above logic to other chemicals in our medicine cabinets. Next time you take a shower, skim your favorite products’ ingredients lists. What might happen if they suddenly leaked outdoors—and what can you do to prevent it?  

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