A white, powdery substance found in thousands of products worldwide.
Triclosan has been found to be toxic and interferes with hormone systems.
Wastewater treatment plants cannot filter out all triclosan, allowing it to enter the environment where it accumulates in food webs.
Triclosan breaks down and forms toxic byproducts.
Certain governments (European countries, Minnesota in the U.S.) and retailers are starting to ban triclosan.
Triclosan is a synthetic chemical that was first used in the 1960s in hospitals and healthcare settings to keep bacteria from growing and spreading. In the modern crusade against germs, however, triclosan has seen tremendous growth in use and consumption.
By the year 2000, triclosan was present in 75% of liquid soaps and almost 30% of bar soaps in the United States. Triclosan is now in thousands of consumer products around the world. In Canada alone, 1600 cosmetics and natural health products contain triclosan.
You can find triclosan in toothpaste, skin cleansers, moisturizers, hand soaps, detergents, cookware, furniture, and more (Environment Canada, 2012; Prevent Cancer Now). Driven by a societal fear of germs, consumption of antimicrobial products such as triclosan has increased dramatically over the past decades.
From our sinks and showers to the world’s waters
One of the main ways triclosan enters into lakes, rivers, groundwater, and other waterways is through effluent from wastewater treatment plants.
Most modern treatment processes cannot fully filter out triclosan. In fact, the wastewater treatment process can break down triclosan into more dangerous forms. One such product is called methyl-triclosan, which is more likely to accumulate in food webs due to its chemistry. Methyl-triclosan is also formed when triclosan degrades in soil or water. And dioxins, another family of toxic chemicals, are formed when triclosan is broken down by sunlight.
The increased use of triclosan in the past few decades has led to high concentrations in surface water. And its harmful effects – on the environment and on us – are becoming undeniable.
The big question: Is triclosan necessary?
The effectiveness of triclosan is questionable outside of medical settings because its effective lifespan is very short ranging from mere seconds to minutes. But when triclosan is released into our wastewater and into the environment, it can stay in the environment for decades. Once there, triclosan continues to affect the health of aquatic species like invertebrates and fish.
The US FDA and the Public Health Agency of Canada both stated that soaps with antibacterials like triclosan are not more effective at removing bacteria than simply washing hands with plain soap and water. In fact, substitutes, like alcohol-based hand sanitizers without triclosan are more safe, and more effective.
How is triclosan harmful?
Triclosan is known to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in the environment. If we look at fish as an example, this means that triclosan stays in fish and increases in concentration as it moves up food chains. Normally absorbed through the gills, triclosan has been found in fish at concentrations thousands of times higher than the rest of the water column. Entire food webs and ecosystems can be altered by this chemical as it becomes more and more widespread.
While Environment Canada recognizes this environmental threat, Health Canada maintains triclosan is safe for humans, even though it’s toxic to humans and wildlife alike. In addition, there is mounting evidence that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor, meaning it interferes with hormone function in humans and wildlife. Even more alarming, triclosan encourages bacterial resistance to antibiotics. As bacteria are constantly exposed to it, they may adapt and become more difficult to kill - meaning some of the medicines we depend on may not work in the future.
What’s being done?
As of 2010, the European Union banned triclosan from products that come into contact with food (ie: cutting boards). In 2017, Minnesota became the first state and the first government in the Great Lakes Basin to officially ban triclosan from cleaning products. New York state is also considering a ban.
Meanwhile, Canada awaits the final assessment of triclosan by Environment Canada. This will inform whether triclosan will be declared “toxic” under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA). The preliminary assessment already concluded that triclosan meets criteria to be added to the List of Toxic Substances (Schedule 1). If this goes through, we can expect a risk management plan and possible regulation in Canada within the next few years.
Until then, unfortunately, this means that triclosan will continue to be used in consumer products and release toxins into waterways.
In the meantime, various companies have pledged their cooperation. Wal-Mart, for example, has recently added triclosan to a list of 8 chemicals it will be phasing out of products. Other producers of products containing triclosan have also signaled phaseouts over the upcoming years.
What you can do
More and more, people are becoming concerned about the lack of regulation of this harmful, yet ubiquitous chemical. Scientists have recommended that its use in all products be regulated or avoided.
The easiest thing you can do – and the best choice for your health and our waterways – is to avoid products containing triclosan. Check the ingredients list on your soaps, toothpastes, shampoos and other personal care products. Cosmetics and non-prescription drugs and required to list triclosan if it is an ingredient. By steering clear and preventing more triclosan from entering waterways you can prevent causing harm to yourself and those around you.