Your Hand Soap Could Be Doing You More Harm Than Good
April 2, 2014

Your Hand Soap Could Be Doing You More Harm Than Good

Rebekah Eliason for – Your Universe Online

Antimicrobial household products are widely used, but scientists are wondering if they are doing more harm than good. A new study from Arizona State University has assembled evidence suggesting that antimicrobial use brings consumers no measurable benefit.

Even more troubling, according to recent research, the lax regulation of these products has caused toxic compounds to spread throughout wildlife and human populations contaminating the environment.

After leaving the issue unfinished for 40 years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reevaluated the safety of additives in the most common antibacterial household products. Specifically, the FDA studied triclocarban (TCC) and triclosan (TCS), which are chemicals commonly used to make soaps and toothpaste.

Rolf Halden, who has tracked the topic for years, said, “It's a big deal that the FDA is taking this on.” Halden is the director of the Center for Environmental Security, which is a joint research hub created with support from Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute, Fulton Schools of Engineering and the Security and Defense Systems Initiative.

To address safety and environmental concerns, the FDA has stipulated that manufactures demonstrate the safety of their products within one year or they must completely remove them from products. Until June, the FDA rule is open for public comment.

"The FDA's move is a prudent and important step toward preserving the efficacy of clinically important antibiotics, preventing unnecessary exposure of the general population to endocrine disrupting and potentially harmful chemicals, and throttling back the increasing release and accumulation of antimicrobials in the environment," said Halden.

In 1957 TCC was introduced to the market and not long after in 1964 TCS began to be distributed.

"This multi-billion dollar market has saturated supermarkets worldwide and vastly accelerated the consumption of antimicrobial products," wrote Halden in a paper published in Environmental Science & Technology. "Today, TCC and more so TCS can be found in soaps, detergents, clothing, carpets, paints, plastics, toys, school supplies, and even in pacifiers, with over 2,000 antimicrobial products available."

When used properly in healthcare settings, antimicrobial soaps are an effective product. Surprisingly, these same products when used in households are ineffective because most people do not use them as they were intended. In order to be effective, public health officials recommend that a person sing a verse of “Row, row, row your boat” for about 20-30 seconds while scrubbing hands with the soap.

Halden estimated that on average consumers wash their hands for a short and ineffective 6 seconds. All this accomplishes is spreading TCC and TCS throughout the environment and exposing wildlife to its harmful effects.

Halden has designed sophisticated detection methods using modern research technology to study the consequences of antimicrobial use on human health and the environment. Halden’s research has added to the increasing amount of worldwide scientific evidence regarding the damage of TCC and TCS.

The research team discovered the following facts about antimicrobial compounds:

TCC and TCS are responsible for 60 percent of all the drugs detected in wastewater treatment plant sludge. Since the chemicals do not easily degrade, TCC and TCS have persisted in US sediments for more than 50 years. Both chemicals have endocrine and immunotoxic effects and contaminate lakes and rivers which cause a lifetime of exposure to aquatic organisms.

Approximately 310,000 lbs/yr of TCC and 125,000 lbs/yr of TCS are applied inadvertently on US agricultural land as a result of sewage sludge disposal, which presents a pathway for the contamination of food with antimicrobials and drug resistant microbes. In commercial grade TCS traces of toxic dioxin are present and additional dioxins are known to form upon disposal down the drain and during sludge incineration.

These facts are merely the environmental and wildlife consequences. Dangers to human health include increasing the development of drug-resistant infections as well as altering hormone levels in developing children which can possibly lead to the early onset of puberty.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the chemicals are found in the urine of three-quarters of Americans. Even more troubling, an industry funded study detected TCS in the breast milk of 97 percent of US women tested.

Regulating TCS and TCC in the United States has been challenging. One single umbrella guidance document from 1974 attempted to regulate all the uses and best practices. This document was known as the topical antimicrobial drug products Over-the-Counter (OTC) Drug Monograph of the FDA.

Although 2014 marks the 40th anniversary of the OTC FDA issuance, this document has still not been finalized to protect consumers from the toxic effects of TCC and TCS.

According to Halden, the solution to solve current antimicrobial issues is ultimately innovation. He envisions using ‘green’ next generation antimicrobials. These new types of antimicrobials offer broad-spectrum effectiveness against pathogens but would possess a low toxicity as well as lower the potential for developing antimicrobial drug resistance. In addition, it would be important that they rapidly degrade in wastewater treatment plants in order to limit unwanted exposure and contamination of the environment.

Development of such a product has the potential to be a multi-billion dollar and highly competitive industry.

"Sustainability considerations already are informing the design of green pharmaceuticals and adopting this approach for antimicrobials promises to yield important benefits to people and the planet," he concludes in the ES&T paper.

In the interim, Halden will travel to Washington, D.C. to exchange information with scientists and lawmakers at the FDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.