It can be easily identified as a stated ingredient in many conventional brands of hand soap, toothpaste, shampoo, and hand sanitizer, but a new report out of Europe reveals that the deadly antibacterial chemical triclosan is also now showing up in persistently high levels in lakes and waterways around the world, as well as in human breast milk and blood plasma.
Researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Germany recently conducted an extensive analysis of water quality in the Elbe River Basin, a major water catchment that runs south from the North Sea through Germany and into the Czech Republic, and found that concentrations of triclosan were much higher than previously determined through standard measuring protocols.
According to the data, persistent triclosan levels were found to be up to 12 times higher at numerous test sites around the basin than the previously determined "no-effect concentration" for algal communities, proving that existing monitoring efforts for persistent chemicals like triclosan are severely lacking. Out of 500 pollutants investigated as part of the study, in fact, triclosan ranked sixth as the most persistent and most harmful.
"This chemical has been on the market since 1972 and it was not until 1998 that the first serious effects were discovered," says the report, which was recently published in the journal Environmental Science Pollution Research. "Scientists [are] also very concerned about the fact that nowadays triclosan cannot only be detected in organisms living in waste water, but also in human plasma and in breast milk."
Triclosan linked to serious health effects, including hormone disruption and cancer
Since triclosan exposure is linked to causing antibiotic-resistant "superbugs," heart damage, and potentially even cancer, among various other health conditions, it is vital that this chemical be better monitored and regulated. According to UFZ researchers, many European countries do not even regulate triclosan at all, which means there is no way to know just how much of the chemical is accumulating in and tainting waterways throughout the continent.
In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still considers triclosan to be safe, but is currently in the process of evaluating emerging science on the chemical that increasingly questions its safety. According to a more recent FDA announcement, triclosan is linked to causing hormone disruption in animals, which may also be problematic in humans.
"Manufacturers of a number of triclosan-containing toothpaste and soap products claim that the active ingredient continues to work for as long as 12 hours after use," says the National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides (NCAMP). "Thus, consumers are exposed to triclosan for much longer than the 20 seconds it takes to wash their hands or brush their teeth," adds the group, suggesting that this triclosan persistence is also more common throughout the environment than previously believed.