Triclosan is a chlorinated aromatic
compound with antibacterial properties, as well as antifungal and antiviral
properties. It goes by the trade
name, Microban®, when used in plastics and clothing, and as Biofresh® when
used in acrylic fibers. The companies that manufacture and use triclosan
claim it is safe. However, it is registered as a pesticide with the
United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Pesticides are
chemicals designed to kill some life form. The EPA considers triclosan
a high risk for human health and the environment. When introduced in
1972, triclosan was confined to health care settings in a surgical
Triclosan may not be a familiar term to most consumers, though it is now ubiquitous
in most American households, masquerading under the unassuming term, "antimicrobial." In
the United States, "antimicrobial" has become synonymous with
cleanliness and good health. The chemical industry has fostered a fear of germs
among American consumers and developed a lucrative market selling products
designed to protect us from germs. The EPA estimates sales of antimicrobial
products now constitute a billion dollar per year industry.5
As an antibacterial, triclosan is added to numerous consumer goods. It is commonly
found in detergents, dishwashing liquids, kitchen sponges, soaps, deodorants,
cosmetics, lotions, antimicrobial creams, acne medications, skin cleansers,
toothpaste, mouthwashes, various plastics including children's toys,
paint, wallpaper, flooring, textiles, curtains, sandal foot beds, public railings,
keyboards, countertops, faucets, even dog bowls. It is being added to an increased
number of consumer products including kitchen utensils, cutting boards, socks,
and trash bags.1,3,5-8
Linens are now being targeted for the antimicrobial treatment. "Consumers
are really demanding it," claims Billy Henry, president of Microban
International of Charlotte, North Carolina. While the EPA prevents manufacturers
from making health-related claims about killing germs, it does allow the word,
microbes, to be used in advertising. Consumers would certainly enjoy the benefit
of preventing mildew odor on damp towels, but might not be so easily seduced
if fully cognizant of the health risks associated with exposure to the controversial
Triclosan is a chlorophenol, a class of chemicals suspected of causing cancer
in humans. A variety of skin irritations can result from phenol exposure,
but since phenols are capable of deactivating sensory nerve endings, the
normal warning signs from pain may not be present. There have been reports
of individuals developing contact dermatitis (skin irritation). There has
been some evidence also that triclosan can cause photoallergic contact dermatitis
(PACD), which occurs when skin exposed to triclosan has also been exposed
to sunlight. A rash may result on the face, neck, back of hands, or sun-exposed
areas of the arms. Will health providers be advised to ask patients with
these symptoms if they are using antimicrobial treated linens? Probably not.2,3
Triclosan can interfere with the body's thyroid hormone metabolism,
lowering body temperature and causing a "non-specific depressant effect
on the central nervous system" of mice.2
Symptoms of internal exposure, even in small amounts, may include cold sweats,
circulatory collapse, convulsions, coma, and death. Long-term and repeated
exposure to many pesticide products can damage the liver, kidneys, heart, and
lungs and cause paralysis, sterility, brain hemorrhages, hormonal disruption,
and immune suppression.3,4
The chemical structure of triclosan resembles certain estrogens. One study
on a species of Japanese fish did not indicate any estrogenic effects, but
found androgenic effects resulting in changes in fin length and sex ratios.2
Triclosan is lipophilic, attaching to fatty tissue. It can accumulate in the
liver, lungs, and kidneys, reaching toxic levels. As a chlorophenol, it is
categorized as a persistent organic pollutant, along with dioxins and PCBs.
These chemicals persist in the environment and bioaccumulate up the food chain.
Being at the top of the food chain, humans harbor the most concentrated amounts
of these toxic chemicals.2-4
Triclosan's use is already so widespread it has made its way into the
human body. Studies show triclosan residues in the umbilical cord blood of
infants and in the breast milk of nursing mothers.9 Triclosan has not been
thoroughly tested nor evaluated for potential risks to human health and the
environment though it is in a category of very toxic and carcinogenic chemicals.
It is chemically similar to Agent Orange.3,4
Not All Germs are Bad
Multiple exposures from daily encounters with a strong antibiotic agent such
as triclosan is being questioned by many health proponents. Antimicrobials
kill off the good bacteria along with the bad, while increasing health risks
to host organisms, including plants, animals, and humans. We are finally
recognizing the important role of friendly bacteria. Such bacteria are needed
for their beneficial effects of aiding metabolism to protect against harmful
Wide use of antimicrobials and disinfectants can lead to genetic mutations,
creating drug-resistant bacteria and mutant viruses for which the human immune
system remains defenseless. Studies indicate that people exposed to a variety
of microbes develop stronger immune systems, while individuals who grow up
in more sterile environments are more susceptible to respiratory allergies,
asthma, and eczema.2,3
A half-century after penicillin was introduced as the greatest wonder drug
to kill infectious bacteria, we are now witnessing the emergence of super bugs
that are not only resistant to penicillin, but are also resistant to the newer
and stronger antibiotics, such as vancomycin.6
Antibiotics' ability to save lives is unquestioned. However, the pervasive
use of these drugs is creating heretofore unanticipated problems of mutant
strains of drug resistant bacteria faster than modern technology is able to
contain them. Widespread exposure to antibiotics from multiple prescriptions
beginning in early childhood and from a steady diet in the food supply has
done little to fortify our immune systems. Antibiotics are routinely added
to animal feed to accelerate growth and to combat rampant disease from overcrowded
factory farm conditions.
Because triclosan was originally thought to kill all bacteria, the possibility
of it contributing to bacteria resistance was not considered. Triclosan soon
became the perfect germ-killer, added to soaps and toothpaste for adults and
children to protect against infection. As a germ-fearing culture, we embraced
this concept wholeheartedly. History may be repeating itself as we begin to
learn about new risks associated with triclosan.
Microbiologist, Laura McMurray, PhD, and colleagues at Tufts University School
of Medicine in Boston, now believe triclosan may not be so great after all.
In lab experiments, they were able to breed mutant strains of bacteria, which
could develop resistance to triclosan. Writing in the journal Nature,
McMurray indicated the possible emergence of triclosan-resistant bacteria,
there is no current evidence that this has already happened. No research has
yet "looked for them out in the real world," but she stressed, "there
is the potential." McMurray discouraged using triclosan germ-killing
products in the home and encouraged fighting germs with ordinary soap and water
Safer alternatives to using antimicrobial soaps include the following:
and thorough hand washing with regular soap and water, and thorough rinsing,
children's hands and toys frequently,
- using clean towels for drying,
- frequently washing surfaces that
come in contact with food.
has provided some very good antimicrobial products that pose less threat to
humans and the environment. Among them are Australian tea
tree oil, pine oil, and grapefruit seed extract.2
The molecular structure of triclosan is similar to dioxins and PCBs, some of
the most toxic substances on earth. Its production creates small amounts
of residual polychlorinated dioxins and polychlorinated furans, which are
contained in small amounts in the products to which triclosan has been added.1,2
Besides being highly carcinogenic, dioxins can weaken the immune system,
decrease fertility, alter sex hormones, and cause birth defects and miscarriage.
Dioxins are formed when triclosan is manufactured and probably when it is
Additionally, small amounts of dioxins and furans are also produced when triclosan
reacts with chlorine in tap water. Dioxins are extremely toxic and potent endocrine
disruptors that bioaccumulate to dangerous levels and persist in the environment
for long periods of time.1 According to EPA spokesperson, Enesta Jones, the
agency is investigating the possible impact of dioxin-like byproducts as part
of its review process scheduled for completion in 2007.5
Triclosan + Water = A Bad Mix
Nearly all dish liquids now contain triclosan. Consumers who use antibacterial
dish liquids believe they are helping themselves and their families stay
healthy. It seems this controversial germ-killing agent reacts with chlorinated
tap water to form hazardous chloroform as dishes are being washed, according
to research conducted at Virginia Polytech Institute and State University.
Chloroform is classified as a "probable" carcinogen.8
Erick D. Olsen, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council,
believes "there is a very real likelihood that washing dishes with triclosan-containing
liquid could cause additional and troubling significant exposure through inhalation
and potentially through dermal absorption." Consumers with chlorinated
tap water who use triclosan-containing dishwashing products are advised to
wear rubber gloves to reduce skin contact, but no one has yet suggested wearing
facemasks to reduce inhalation exposure, nor have suggestions been made on
how to avoid mucosal absorption from toothpaste use. As in all things, caveat
emptor, let the buyer beware. If product labels are unclear about contents,
consumers may wish to contact manufacturers to clarify chemical ingredients,
or they might simply choose alternative brands. Consumers without access to
a health food store, or with insufficient choices in their supermarket, can
obtain safer household and personal care products from N.E.E.D.S. (800-634-1380,
Over 95% of triclosan in consumer products is washed down the drain. Wastewater
treatment plants do not remove triclosan from the water. The chemical is
highly stable for long periods of time, contaminating our waterways. Triclosan
has become one of the most frequently detected compounds in US streams, and
in lakes and rivers in Switzerland.2
Triclosan effluents have a negative impact on stream ecosystems, with especially
high risks occurring downstream from water treatment facilities. Triclosan's
lipophilic nature and resistance to degradation make it readily available for
absorbtion by and bioaccumulation in aquatic organisms. Methyl triclosan, a
breakdown product, is actually more lipophilic than the parent compound and,
therefore, more bioaccumulative.2
It is likely that triclosan in water exposed to sunlight can also produce dioxins.
Consequently, another concern is the potential for dioxin creation when triclosan-tainted
chlorinated water is exposed to sunlight at water treatment plants.2
US Regulation is Lax
The US Environmental Protection Agency
regulates all pesticidal use of triclosan, including its use as a preservative,
fungicide, or biocide, as is the case
with Microban® used in plastics. When used in soaps, deodorants, creams,
and acne medications, triclosan comes under the jurisdiction of the US Food
and Drug Administration.2
Hasbro Inc. manufactures Playskool toys made with Microban plastic containing
triclosan. In 1997, the company was stopped from making false claims about
protecting children from microbial infection, but was allowed to continue using
the antimicrobial chemical. In 2000, Denmark issued a warning against the routine
use of antibacterial household and personal care products, emphasizing they "are
extremely persistent and highly toxic in the marine environment." Finland
also urged consumers to avoid certain antibacterial chemicals. Germany's
environmental minister referred to household antimicrobials as, "superfluous
and risky." Subsequently, soap and detergent manufacturers in Europe
agreed to a ban on any increase in use above 1998 levels. In the United Kingdom,
four major grocery chains have banned triclosan from their products.2,7
Cecil Fox PhD, retired National Institutes of Health (NIH) senior microbiologist
and immunologist, expressed frustration saying, "I am troubled that
governmental review of triclosan has failed to scrutinize the development of
resistant microorganisms (and the byproduct, antibiotic resistant microbial
populations) and transport and accumulation of triclosan residues through skin
and mucosal absorption. FDA's failure is a national scandal."9
In 2005, a federal advisory panel to the FDA voted 11 to one to declare that
antibacterial soaps and washes offer no greater protection than regular soap
and water. The panel of independent experts acknowledged the chemical germ-killers
could actually contribute to the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Dr.
Alastair Wood, chairman of the Nonprescription Drugs Advisory Committee, said, "There
is no evidence they are a good value."10
A coalition of health and environmental groups led by Beyond Pesticides petitioned
the FDA on October 25, 2005 to pull the controversial chemical from the market.
Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides, expressed the group's
concern by stating, "The failure to regulate triclosan as the law requires
puts millions of people and the environment at unnecessary risk to toxic effects
and elevated risk to other bacterial diseases."10
Dr. Stuart Levy, president of the Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics,
advocates restricting antibacterial products from consumer goods and leaving
them where they are most needed, in hospitals and in the homes of very sick
people. It will take years before our regulatory agencies move to ban triclosan,
and even more years will pass during which those same agencies will allow manufacturers
to sell off existing products. As consumers, we don't have to wait that
long. We can choose to ban these products from our homes with our very next
purchases. Dr. Levy reminds us that, "Bacteria are not going to be destroyed.
They've seen dinosaurs come and go. They will be happy to see us come
and go. Any attempt to sterilize our home is fraught with failure."10
Rose Marie Williams
156 Sparkling Ridge Road
New Paltz, New York 12561 USA
845-255-0836 / Fax 845-255-5101
1. Triclosan. Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triclosan.
Accessed February 18, 2006.
2. Glazer, A. The ubiquitous triclosan, a common antibacterial agent
exposed. Pesticides and You.
Vol. 24, No. 3, 2004. Available at: www.beyondpesticides.org/pesticides/factsheets.
3. McGehee, A, PhD. Triclosan. Available at: http://www.lindachae.com/Triclosan_article.htm.
Accessed February 18, 2006.
4. Lark, S, MD. Triclosan. The Lark Letter (877-437-5275).
June 2004; 11(6).
5. Baldwin, D. Mold? Mildew? Odors? New towels fight back. The
New York Times. August 11, 2005.
6. Fox, M. Health & Science Corresp., Reuters. Common disinfectant
could breed superbugs. Available at: http://www.lindachae.com/common_disinfectant.htm.
Accessed February 18, 2006.
7. Kepner, J. Triclosan hazards continued. Pesticides and You.
Winter 2004/2005; 24(4).
8. Antibacterial dish liquids + chlorinated water = dangers in your
dishwasher. FL Breast Cancer Resource Network (800-696-8349).
9. Groups ask FDA to ban antibacterial products containing triclosan.
Technical Report. November 2005; 20(11). Beyond Pesticides.
Available at: www.beyondpesticides.org.
10. Soap claims don't wash, panel says. Poughkeepsie
Journal (NY). October 21, 2005.