Markey sees risks in cleaning chemical

Pushes to curb use of triclosan

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / April 8, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Most consumers have probably never heard of triclosan, but they almost certainly come into contact with it. The chemical, an antibacterial and antifungal agent, has become part of daily life, found in most hand soaps, as well as in certain toothpastes pesticides, mouse pads, and shaving gels.

It’s even in some gym socks.

But now there are increasing efforts to ban the substance from everyday products. Some scientists and environmentalists say triclosan may do more harm than good because — while industry insists it is safe in everyday applications — there is evidence it can disrupt animal hormones.

Representative Edward J. Markey, following several months of correspondence with federal agencies about potential health effects, is calling on the federal government to ban its use in a broad range of consumer products that are used to wash hands and prepare food, or are marketed to children. He is also filing legislation that would accelerate the government’s evaluation and regulation of potentially harmful products.

“It is literally in almost every type of product we use today,’’ Markey, a Malden Democrat and chairman of the Energy and Environment Subcommittee, said yesterday in an interview. “It’s found in our bodies, in our rivers, in our drinking water. And here’s the thing: In many of these products, especially soaps, the chemical is totally ineffective when compared with regular soap and water.’’

Triclosan, as well as its close cousin triclocarban, was originally used by health care professionals as a surgical scrub. But over the last decade, there has been a significant increase in its uses. It is also used in kitchenware, clothes, cotton swabs, and toys. Manufacturers also use it in certain clothing items, such as socks, to fight foul odors.

Use of products containing triclosan has become even more widespread in recent years as Americans have sought to fend off such ailments as common colds and swine flu.

In addition, the chemical is often washed down residential drains and can get into drinking water because wastewater treatment plants are not required to remove the chemicals. A report by the US Geological Survey found that between 1999 and 2000, triclosan was found in nearly 60 percent of streams.

Spokespeople for several major brands that use the chemical in some of their products, including Dial and Colgate, did not return messages late yesterday. On its website, Colgate maintains that triclosan is a safe and effective antibacterial ingredient in its toothpaste.

But an assistant administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, in a letter to Markey, said the agency had “concluded that there is evidence that triclosan disrupts thyroid hormone levels in laboratory animals’’ and initial research indicates it “has the potential to affect the estrogen system in rats.’’

A top FDA official said yesterday that there were concerns about the chemical that were being studied, but said there no immediate danger was known.

“Given what we know about triclosan right now we don’t have any indication that it poses a threat to human health,’’ said Douglas Throckmorton, the deputy director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “There are some things we need to know about it, and we’re working on that.’’

“There’s no added benefit to using these chemicals in your personal care products, and there’s potential harmful impacts,’’ said Sarah Janssen, a physician and a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group. “Really, regular soap and water does the job.’’

Matt Viser can be reached at