Thousands of chemicals are used in millions of consumer products, most of them considered benign and safe. But there are a few which get into the "zone of controversy" with regard to how safe they are. One such chemical is Triclosan which is used world wide in many consumer products as an anti-bacterial agent and since these products are not used in foods, not much attention was focused on its safety due to "exposure". As is the case with many chemicals, Triclosan is also in the center of a controversy with the industry and the consumer activists literally at each other's throat. While antagonists are fighting fiercely to bring about a ban of this chemical, protagonists, viz the user industries swear by its safety, both citing scientific studies to support their stand. Unfortunately the safety pundits in the governments who are supposed to act as a referee in such cases procrastinate too long delaying any conclusion on the safety of this chemical. Here is a take on this issue bringing out the dilemma of the arbitrators in settling the safety debate once for all.
"The Food and Drug Administration is reviewing the safety of the chemical, which was created more than 40 years ago as a surgical scrub for hospitals. Triclosan is now in a range of consumer products, including soaps, kitchen cutting boards and even a best-selling toothpaste, Colgate Total. It is so prevalent that a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemical present in the urine of 75 percent of Americans over the age of 5. Several studies have shown that triclosan may alter hormone regulation in laboratory animals or cause antibiotic resistance, and some consumer groups and members of Congress want it banned in antiseptic products like hand soap. The F.D.A. has already said that soap with triclosan is no more effective than washing with ordinary soap and water, a finding that manufacturers dispute. The F.D.A. was to announce the results of its review several months ago, but now says the timing is uncertain and unlikely until next year. The Environmental Protection Agency is also looking into the safety of triclosan. The outcome of the federal inquiries poses a significant risk to the makers of antimicrobial and antibacterial hand soaps, which represent about half of the $750 million market for liquid hand soaps in the United States, according to the market research firm Kline & Company. Many of those soaps use triclosan as the active ingredient and say so on the label. Dial Complete is the fifth-best-selling liquid hand soap in the nation, according to data collected from most major stores (except for Wal-Mart) by SymphonyIRI Group, a Chicago-based market research firm. Richard Theiler, senior vice president for research and development at Henkel, the German-based manufacturer of Dial Complete, said there was no real evidence showing that triclosan was dangerous for humans. He also said that several recent studies had proved the effectiveness of triclosan in killing germs, and that those studies had been submitted to the federal regulators. "It has been used now in products safely for decades," Mr. Theiler said. But as consumer groups have campaigned against triclosan, some consumer product manufacturers have removed it and substituted less controversial ingredients. Reckitt Benckiser removed triclosan from three face washes, for instance. And citing "changing consumer preferences," Colgate-Palmolive replaced triclosan with lactic acid in Palmolive Antibacterial Dish Liquid, and its Softsoap liquid hand soap has been reformulated without the chemical. Colgate, however, continues to use triclosan in its Colgate Total toothpaste because it has been proved to fight gingivitis, a claim approved by the F.D.A. "The safety and efficacy of Colgate Total toothpaste is fully supported by over 70 clinical studies in over 10,000 patients," the company said in a statement. Scientists have raised concerns about triclosan for decades. Last year, Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat from Massachusetts, pressured the F.D.A. to write regulations for antiseptic products like hand soap, including the use of triclosan. The process of creating regulations was started more than three decades ago, but has been repeatedly delayed. In the meantime, Mr. Markey has called for a ban on triclosan in hand soaps, in products that come in contact with food and in products marketed to children. The concern is based on recent studies about the possible health impacts of triclosan, which the F.D.A. said, in a Feb. 23, 2010, letter to Mr. Markey, "raise valid concerns about the effect of repetitive daily human exposure to these antiseptic ingredients." Several have shown that triclosan disrupts the thyroid hormone in frogs and rats, while others have shown that triclosan alters the sex hormones of laboratory animals. Others studies have shown that triclosan can cause some bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics'"
There is a nagging suspicion among the consumer activists that the enormous clout of the industry on the government is preventing the latter to ban the substance though available scientific findings do cast a shadow of doubt about its safety. Added to this the effectiveness of Triclosan in toiletry products is also under a cloud with latest findings showing its redundancy in products like soaps and other products which are equally effective without this chemical. While occasional use of washing aids containing Triclosan may not cause any adverse effect, it is the consequences of repeated exposure that is being questioned. Interestingly some of the major manufacturers of products containing Triclosan are switching over to other less controversial antibacterial chemicals fearing serious consumer backlash and probably they may prove to be wiser in the long run. One is reminded of the BPA controversy last year which eventually persuaded the feeding bottle industry made from polycarbonate plastics to shift to BPA free plastics fearing adverse consumer reaction. There is a lesson to be learned from these episodes that the industry cannot continue to be in a denial mode when it comes to consumer safety and must be more sensitive to issues concerning human safety.