EPA OKs Chemicals in Your Underpants

The pesticide tricolosan approved for use in everything from toothpaste to clothing.

December 17, 2008

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has reregistered triclosan, an antibacterial chemical that’s regulated as a pesticide, allowing its continued use in consumer products.

THE DETAILS: Triclosan was originally used in medical settings, but it has since seeped into the blood, urine, and breast milk of almost all of us, thanks to its inclusion in thousands of everyday items. The chemical is found in many antibacterial soaps, some toothpastes, and many personal-care products, but it’s also impregnated as a preservative in products that make germ-killing, deodorizing, “antimicrobial” claims. Those include countertops, toothbrushes, blankets, rugs, shoes, plastic toys, tents, brooms, garbage cans, undergarments, and a whole host of other items.

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When it finds its way into the environment, triclosan can wreak havoc: It triggers estrogen production that turns male frogs into females, and it’s toxic to algae and phytoplankton. When exposed to sunlight, triclosan can degrade into the cancer-causing chemical dioxin. And overuse of the chemical could result in microorganisms that are resistant to antibiotics.

WHAT IT MEANS: Our fear of germs, which motivates us to buy antibiotic versions of everything, could quite possibly backfire by producing microbes that are extra-hard to kill.

Here are some ways to avoid triclosan while taking appropriate action against germs:

• Suds up with regular soap. The Food and Drug Administration and dozens of researchers have found that washing your hands with regular soap and warm water is as effective at eliminating germs as using antibacterial soaps. Look for soaps that are fragrance-free, castile-based, or scented with essential oils—they don’t contain nasty synthetic chemicals. Soaps that list “fragrance” or “parfum” usually contain potentially unhealthy chemicals in the phthalate family. For cleaning around the house, use simple, natural ingredients, such as vinegar/water solutions, or a teaspoon of lavender essential oil added to a spray bottle of water.

• Nix this triclosan cousin. Avoid solid bar soaps that contain triclocarban, which is similar to triclosan. University of California-Davis researchers believe it’s a hormone disrupter. If you must use antibacterial cleanser products, use alcohol-based brands.

• Look beyond the label. Triclosan isn’t always listed as an ingredient; be suspicious of anything that’s labeled “antibacterial.” For a list of some triclosan-containing brand name products, visit Beyond Pesticides.

• Ask the EPA to reconsider. You have until Dec. 29, 2008, to comment on the EPA’s stance on triclosan. Visit EPA online and enter docket ID number EPA-HQ-OPP-2007-0513 to give your opinion.

You can mail comments to:
Office of Pesticide Programs (OPP)
Regulatory Public Docket (7502P)
Environmental Protection Agency
1200 Pennsylvania Ave., NW.
Washington, DC 20460-0001

• Use your voice as a consumer. Write, email, or call manufacturers of the products you use and ask them to remove antibacterial chemicals from their products.