Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Tuesday Toxin Talk

I'm currently reading Slow Death by Rubber Duck, by Rick Smith (Executive Director of Environmental Defence) and Bruce Lourie (President of the Ivey Foundation). The book examines the toxins that leach out of commonplace items in our homes and workplaces and wind up in our bodies. Smith and Lourie experiment on themselves, purposely exposing themselves to everyday products over a four-day period, and use the results to raise awareness about the dangers that surround us. I'd like to use this space every few Tuesdays to share some of this vital information with you. For more in-depth coverage, please buy the book!


Let's talk about triclosan.

You may know it by its more popular name, Microban, the antibacterial product that almost always uses triclosan as an active ingredient. Are you ready for one helluva list of products that any one of you could easily find on store shelves in a version that contains triclosan? Okay, here goes: chopsticks, steering wheels, garden hoses, hot tubs, pillows, slippers, hand soap, toothpaste, underwear, towels, mattresses, sponges, shower curtains, phones, flooring, cutting boards, fabric, children's toys, cosmetics, deodorants, and countertops. To name a few.

In this germophobic day and age, it seems that we're all to happy to turn a blind eye to the frightening truth: when antimicrobials are (mis)used on such a wide scale, the ever-increasing number of bacteria that mutate to resist our drugs cause serious problems for the medical world in treating infectious diseases. To be fair, the rise of superbugs has much more to do with the overuse of antibiotics in animals (thanks, CAFOs) and humans (thanks, MDs), but that hardly lets triclosan-happy manufacturers off the hook. Consider the fact that numerous studies show many antibacterial household products to be no more effective at killing germs than regular soap. In other words, at the low concentrations found in such products, triclosan delivers a one-two punch of causing harm while not doing its job of protecting us from bacteria. I'm a little underwhelmed. You?

Except, instead of being disappointed, we should be angry. Triclosan is, as the title of this post suggests, a toxin. In animal studies, it has been linked to endocrine and thyroid disruption (fun stuff like androgenic effects in fish), and as with other nasty chemicals, it is being found in all the wrong places at increasing levels. Triclosan is present not only in our fatty tissues but also in umbilical cord blood and women's breast milk. And since we carry so much of it, we expel a lot of it, too, and it's running down streams all across the country. The really scary statistic is the huge jump in the concentration of triclosan in Rick Smith's urine after exposing himself to antibacterial toothpaste, facial cleanser, hand soap, shaving gel, deodorant, shower soap, and dish detergent for two days: 2.47 ng/mL turned into 7,180 ng/mL. That's almost 3000 times higher!

So what are we to do if we want to avoid triclosan but stay healthy? I recommend the following steps:

  • wash your hands
  • Wash Your Hands
  • wash your hands properly (for a great visual guide, check this out)
  • unless you've just washed your hands, don't touch your face, as germs love to enter your system through your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • drink lots of fluids to continuously flush bacteria out of your system (for bonus points, please use a low-flow toilet and observe the "if it's yellow, let it mellow" rule)
  • eat a nutritious diet that keeps your body healthy, and therefore, your immune system strong
  • be happy, because stress makes you susceptible to illness :)

Do you have other tips for staying healthy without resorting to antimicrobials?

Image of chemical structure of triclosan sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Image of angry cartoon bug used under Creative Commons from  Ben Piddington (beneneuman/flickr).


  1. Wow. I knew about triclosan in antibacterial soaps and sanitizers and have seen it in toothpaste, but I didn't know it was in so much other stuff. Urgh. I'm pretty resigned to dying of cancer at this point, so I don't stress too much over all the things I can't control, but...urgh.

  2. It just boggles the mind... I mean, I've always hoped that things like this don't have nefarious intent (that some well-intentioned researcher really wanted to make the world a cleaner, healthier place)... but to be so widespread and so willfully ignorant of the negative side-effects... it's just crazy.

  3. Great post Andrea! Triclosan is a nasty chemical. Your advice to wash our hands (with plain ol soap and water) is perfect. Also, be sure to check the ingredient list on all personal care products that you plan to use. Get sleep-that's what keep me healthy.

  4. Jennifer - I know, it's really strange what they choose to put it in. The book chapter opens with Rick Smith discovering that there's Microban on his gardening hose. WHY? It's scary to think people all over the place are spraying their backyard veggies with triclosan. Ew.

  5. Marc - Don't tell me you're actually surprised to hear that the powers that be are willfully ignorant of the negative side-effects! That is sadly quite commonplace these days.

  6. Lori - Thanks for the tips, especially about getting enough sleep. Our bodies can't keep up when we're depriving them of adequate rest. Which reminds me that staying physically active is a good idea, too.

  7. Wow, I did not realize how common it was! I thought it was just mostly in toothpaste, so I look for the brands without it now... I have been off the anti-microbial soaps, etc for a while now, but pillows? Mattresses? Come to think of it, it is on some of my reusable Safeway bags. SAFEway. Hmmm.

  8. Sherry - I'm glad you've been able to avoid it in toothpaste and soap, since we use both products every day. It's scary about pillows and mattresses, though, since we sleep on them for 6-8 hours every night! That's why I'm hoping to switch to organic cotton sheets, too. Too much exposure!

  9. I had no idea that triclosan is present in so many items. I'm usually against hand sanitizer, but after having gotten sick 8 times in 2010, I started using it last year. I do childcare and kids are little germ bags. In addition to washing frequently, I squirt my hands and theirs several times a day. I wonderful if there is a 'healthier' sanitizer brand?

    Its continually upsetting that there are no federal restrictions on 'common place' toxins. I used to work in an immunochemistry lab at a biotech company and I was shocked that all chemicals, solutions, antigens, and antibodies were flushed down the sink. I lived in a coastal area and it was known that most sewage flowed directly into the ocean. I left that company after a year and a half... too many ethical concerns.

  10. Emily - I use hand sanitizer when I use mass transit because inevitably, I'm going to touch something that tons of people have touched before me. While I can easily find brands that contain no triclosan, so many of them contain fragrance/parfum (yay, phthalates) and other mystery ingredients.

    Yeah, it's scary to think about how many toxins are simply flushed down the drain, in households and workplaces alike!