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Washing My Hands of Triclosan--UPDATED!

Posted Aug 12 2008 4:20pm

This is a bar of soap. You use it with water, and it actually works to reduce germs. This is apparently becoming an antiquated way of washing your hands.

Triclosan. That is a word of which I had never heard just two days ago. Then, I got the jarring mid-summer email from the elementary school that listed the school supplies for the new school year, which starts here in Atlanta on the shockingly early date of August 11. And sure enough, there it was--one bottle of hand sanitizer or liquid soap. As this product category has soared with the addition of "antimicrobial" properties, I decided to finally figure out what's in these things.


According to the stack of research I read last night, triclosan is a pesticide that kills bacteria. Like the overuse of antibiotics, the overuse of triclosan contributes to the growing catastrophic problem of bacterial resistance. What's more, there is concern over a link between the escalating numbers of people with allergies and asthma and our increasingly antiseptic lifestyle. Additionally, triclosan "bioaccumulates" in both wildlife and humans, and has been found in fish, human breast milk, and the umbilical cord blood of newborns. Finally, triclosan contains small amounts of dioxin and can be converted to additional dioxin when heated by the sun. Dioxin is a known carcinogen.

Both the CDC and the FDA state that the use of antimicrobial personal care products offers no benefit over the use of regular soap and water. Okay, so why are schools across our country asking parents to bring this stuff in? Got me . But I can't fight every battle, folks. I just can't do it. I'm worn out from the school lunch thing and happy about our decision years ago to simply pack our own. I will provide my child with regular soap and tell the teacher that my daughter is not allowed to use antimicrobial products. If asked for a reason, I will be happy to provide some research, but lord knows I'm not barreling into the PTA meeting and screaming about this. I will vote with my dollar and try to influence change with my family's personal actions. That seems to be more effective anyway.

Okay, so far so good, right? Well, we're walking home from the public bus stop and I keep telling my daughter not to walk on people's lawns because I don't want her dragging their pesticides into our house on the bottoms of her sneakers. I somehow use this an opportunity to rave yet again about my Teva sport sandals, which I bought from REI about a month or so ago. I absolutely adore these shoes and have been happily walking and biking miles in them. I tell my daughter we will get her some sport sandals so she doesn't have to wear those hot sneakers and socks all the time.

So we go to REI and we get the sandals. We get home and I look at this little tag hanging from them. Microban. What on earth is that? A little research reveals--yes, you guessed it. Triclosan. Turns out Microban is the brand name for triclosan when used in footwear, protective wear and sporting gear. Its brand name when used in fibers is BioFresh. Its marketing hook is that it eliminates odors and that it lasts for the lifetime of the item.

Yes, these "environmentally friendly" children's sandals are made with a lifetime supply of pesticides. And I was worried about her walking on the lawns?

And so, of course, the sandals are going back. My daughter asks if she can get Crocs instead, a purchase we have somehow avoided during all these years of their popularity. I say, "Let's check them out." We go to their website and it says they are made with this proprietary material that is neither rubber nor plastic. And yes, it is antimicrobial, but we don't see any mention of Microban.

So I call Customer Service and get a very nice woman named Sharon. Poor, sweet Sharon.

I ask her, "Can you tell me what it is in Crocs that makes them antimicrobial?"

She is silent for a moment, and then says, "I don't know!"

I say, "Well, I'm trying to find out if they contain Microban, which is the brand name for triclosan."

She says she will find out, puts me on hold, and comes back a few minutes later with this, "No one I asked knows, but I'm going to find out. I have to ask the engineers and it may take a few days to get back to you with an answer."

I then ask the question I'm now wondering, "Sharon, am I the first person who has asked you this question?"

And she says, "Yes."

And so, the Crocs will have to wait. But this gets me curious. What else has triclosan? Turns out there's a list a mile long. Numerous soaps, of course, but also certain daily face washes, toothpastes, lipsticks, deodorants, shaving gels, cutting boards, computer keyobards and mouse pads, socks, toys, paints, laminate floors, blankets and towels.

Listen, folks, I don't want pesticides on my apples. I don't want pesticides on my lawn. I certainly don't want them, as an active ingredient, no less, in items I use or wear on a daily basis, especially if research shows that they are harmful. And I'm guessing most people don't know what or where triclosan is. Except for the Tevas, I don't see any other items I use on the extended list, but of course, this got me curious. Here's a great site where you can check out the products that you actually use or are considering purchasing for detailed information about the hazards of their ingredients (including triclosan). You will also find tons of information about "unsettling facts that you have a right to know."

I was telling my mother about this last night and she said, in a hushed and worried tone, "Is Crest on the list?" I know how she feels. The last thing you want is a product you've been using your whole life to betray you. I told her that the Crest products come up with a score of 2 (a low score) to 6 (quite high) for hazards, and that by checking the site, she could choose the formula that was on the low end. This would help product selection when standing there in the aisle looking at the sea of options.

If we, as consumers and as parents, continue to let the marketing machine of Big Business sell us on the benefits (none of which have been proven) of triclosan in our everyday products (and those of our children), then we are, once again, asleep at the wheel. As for me, I'm washing my hands of triclosan. Effective immediately.

I guess that means I need to return my beloved sport sandals, huh?


UPDATE: July 20, 2008

Two things:

1. I called Sharon at Crocs after not hearing from her for over a week. She said she was still awaiting an answer about whether or not Crocs shoes contain triclosan. It has been another week and still no answer. Frankly, I think I have my answer.

2. While shopping for back-to-school supplies today, I saw this: row after row of scissors with Microban! The package says "fights stain and odor-causing bacteria." Have your scissors been smelly and stainy? Is this product claim even remotely realistic? Something is very, very wrong here, folks. We literally had to HUNT for a pair of scissors without this pesticide in them! WHAT is going on?!

Nurturing sustainability close to home and around the world. (And other food for thought!)

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