Ever since the advent of Dial’s antibacterial bar soap in the 1950s, which promised to reduce body odor, the cleaning products industry has been adding antibacterial agents like triclosan to everything from toothpaste to dishwashing soap to cosmetics.
Triclosan use didn’t begin until 1987, but by 2001 a study showed it was already being used in 76 percent of liquid soaps and almost 30 percent of bar soaps, as well as a majority of kitchen and bathroom cleaners – a consumer-driven fear of unpleasant body and household odors that has led to a marketplace containing more than 700 antibacterial products.
Almost a decade later, with unpleasant odors still cropping up wherever humans are crowded together – particularly during hot weather, or in the presence of food waste, mold and mildew, or simply because life is messy – we have now acquired two peripheral problems related to our insistence on eradicating bacteria: we are developing antibiotic resistance, and our lakes and rivers are full of dioxins.
Most people are familiar with the first problem, where bacteria mutate to “get around” antibacterial agents like triclosan and as a result become immune to even our second-generation antibiotics.
E-coli, the bacteria implicated in one form of food poisoning, is a typical example. A 2000 study showed that mutant E. coli could easily survive in triclosan soaps diluted with as little as three parts water, and well beyond the typical, five-second hand washing employed by most users.
Other triclosan-resistant bacteria include methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), and Streptococcus pneumoniae, the primary cause of many pneumonias, middle ear infections and meningitis. The first is a resistant mutation, the second a natural immunity to triclosan enhanced by repeated exposure.
But the situation in lakes and rivers is even more critical, because there the continued and increased use of triclosan, which is ultimately washed down drains, is producing dioxins, four of which only occur in the presence of triclosan residues.
A recent study of dioxins in Lake Pepin by University of Minnesota researcher Jeff Buth, who collaborated with Minneapolis-based Pace Analytical, the Science Museum of Minnesota, and Virginia Tech, examined sediment cores representing the last 50 years of lake bottom deposits, and showed that the four dioxins created by triclosan now represent almost a third of the total dioxins present.
In addition, in the last 30 years levels of these four dioxins in Lake Pepin have risen by 200 to 300 percent, while levels of other dioxins have fallen, in some cases as much as 90 percent.
The worst news? No one really knows how toxic these four dioxins are, or how far they have spread, and no wastewater treatment plant constructed can remove all the triclosan, which interacts with the chlorine used to treat water and ends up being dumped into lakes and rivers. There, in the presence of sunlight, the triclosan completes its transformation into dioxins.
Dioxins, typically associated with Agent Orange (a herbicide used during the Vietnam conflict), come in 75 flavors and are closely related to 139 chlorinated furans and more than 200 polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Dioxins are persistent in the environment, taking up to 15 years to degrade to half their strength where exposed on the surface, and remaining largely unchanged below the soil. Dioxin accumulates in the body, whether one is a fish, a mammal or a human, and its half-life in living tissue is about seven years. Of course, more is also accumulating, so there is no real escape.
Dioxin accumulates in the nuclei of cells and damages DNA. This can cause birth defects, cancer, reproductive difficulties, neurological effects (affecting learning and understanding), immune system defects, heart disease, and diabetes.
According to the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit think tank funded by the Rockefellers and the Ford Foundation, dioxins are deadly, even in amounts calibrated as parts per trillion. Citing a 2009 report from the U.S. Institute of Medicine, Aspen notes that exposure to dioxins is associated with: soft-tissue sarcoma; non-Hodgkin's lymphoma; chronic lymphocytic leukemia (including hairy-cell leukemia); Hodgkin's disease; cancer of the larynx, lung, bronchea or trachea; liver cancer; chloracne; multiple myeloma; Parkinson’s disease; ischemic heart disease; hypertension; peripheral neuropathy; lipid metabolism disorder; spina bifida; cleft lip; cleft palate; club foot; hydrocephalus; neural tube defects; fused digits; muscle malformations, and paralysis.
This is the future our children have to look forward to, if we – as consumers – don’t step forward and demand cosmetic and cleaning product manufacturers stop using triclosan. Because the sad fact is that we humans don’t really smell any better as a result of all that triclosan, and we could look a lot worse.
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