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Triclosan and the Great Lakes

It’s today or any day. You’ve washed your hands and face with soap. Glancing at the bottle, you notice it says “antibacterial,” “fights odours” or “kills germs.” You turn off the tap and watch the sudsy water slurp down the drain not giving it a second thought. A few hours later, having cleared the sewage treatment plant, a flush of triclosan-tainted soap washes into our rivers and lakes where experts tell us it is immediately toxic to fish and other aquatic creatures.

Antibacterial or antimicrobial generally means that the product contains triclosan or its close relative, triclocarban. These buzzwords are meant to comfort us with the idea that we have washed all nasty bacteria off our skin or our teeth.

But is there any evidence to back this up? As it turns out, very little. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has found that plain old soap and water are just as effective at keeping us safe and healthy. Despite the lack of evidence, however, this pesticide (because that’s what it is!) has found its way not only into thousands of cosmetics but as an additive in toys, toothbrushes, cutting boards, mattresses, yoga mats, carpets and garbage cans – everywhere that bacteria, good or bad, may be lurking.

And what are the consequences of flushing triclosan down the sink? Essentially a lake filling up with undesirable chemicals, triclosan being one of the most troublesome. Groups protecting the Great Lakes put it in the top 100 most hazardous. It turns out that it accumulates in the environment and is found everywhere because it is continually released into the water by sewage treatment plants. The more widespread its use, the more it builds up in the sediments of the Great Lakes, one of nature’s most generous gifts, which we have turned into a repository of chemicals contained in personal care products, in drugs and their breakdown products. In the case of triclosan, these breakdown products include dioxins formed at the sewage treatment when chlorine mixes with triclosan during the disinfection process. All of which may come back to us through our drinking water.

It’s not our fault really. Like most people, we believe that the government protects us. Surely it wouldn’t allow chemicals that damage the environment to be so widely used in products. We’ve learned the lesson of DDT, haven’t we – its poisonous impacts on wildlife and its accumulation in the food chain? The problem is that the system that allowed DDT to become popular has never changed. Adjusted maybe, but not substantially changed.

If a company wants to use a chemical, it merely has to pass a number of rudimentary tests, a chemical kindergarten. As a result, the detrimental effects are not thoroughly investigated beforehand. They become evident only when these chemicals are widely dispersed throughout the environment, when scientists start to study the fish, the lake sediments, the human tissue samples. Then, they report on the many complex and unintended consequences of their release. Scientists monitoring Canadians, for example, have detected triclosan and triclocarban in the urine of all people tested. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) carefully suggests that triclosan is not “currently known to be hazardous to humans” but warns that new studies show that it disrupts hormone regulation and may lead to antibiotic resistance. This prospect of antibiotic resistance has alarmed the Canadian Medical Association enough to ask the federal government to ban triclosan from household products.

Even though the impact on humans has (so far) been judged relatively innocuous by Health Canada based on their estimate of the amount of triclosan we are exposed to on a daily basis, triclosan is known to have very negative impacts on the natural world. In its preliminary assessment, Environment Canada has found triclosan “is entering or may enter the environment in a quantity or under conditions that constitute a danger to the environment.” Triclosan has, therefore, become a candidate for a long list of chemicals officially designated as “toxic.” But in environment-speak, toxic doesn’t mean prohibited; it means managed. It means the government may ask industries to voluntarily reduce the amounts finding their way into the lakes or other receptacles of nature. But that would not be the end of triclosan.

The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) views triclosan and triclocarban as chemicals that need to be reined back in. To understand their toxicity, CELA commissioned experts to evaluate them using the GreenScreen® for Safer Chemicals, a recognized tool for assessing chemical hazards. The GreenScreen clearly shows the dangers of both triclosan and its slightly less dangerous cousin, triclocarban.

Therefore, CELA is calling on the Canadian government, first and foremost, but also the governments of Canada’s two provincial governments and all states bordering the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River system, to ban the use of triclosan and triclocarban in consumer products. CELA’s ban is aimed at protecting Great Lakes’ water quality. Although governments on both sides of the border have committed under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement to lighten the Lakes’ toxic load, triclosan has not yet made it onto the international agenda.

This foot-dragging has not stopped Minnesota from setting an example. Based on research that showed triclosan building up in lake sediments, Minnesota has taken unilateral action to protect Lake Superior and its other waterways by phasing triclosan out of cleaning products by January 2017. Like Minnesota, we can personally take action while waiting for governments to do the right thing.

We can try to avoid the 1600 or so body washes, soaps, deodorants, toothpastes and shaving gels on Canadian shelves that contain triclosan or triclocarban by taking a close look at the list of ingredients. For the myriad of products where labelling of ingredients is not required, we can watch out for signal words like antibacterial or fights germs that mean triclosan or triclocarban are likely part of the formula or used to coat the product. We can persuade companies considering the removal of triclosan from their products to do so, with the caveat that they should not substitute other toxic substances. Through our actions, we can start to save the fish and the threatened ecological interconnections of the Great Lakes, which include ourselves as living beings, one shunned product at a time.