Plain soap and water will do
Opinion Contributor

The best way to protect against bacteria is to use plain soap and water, the authors write.

While most Americans may never have heard of the chemical triclosan, they’ve probably come into contact with it in the past few hours. Triclosan is in 75 percent of all liquid hand soaps, and also in kitchenware, cosmetics, children’s toys and countless other items we handle everyday.

When we use an “antibacterial” soap, we’re usually dosing our hands with triclosan.

In children ages 6-11, triclosan concentrations rose 55 percent in a two-year period that ended in 2006, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent studies suggest that three out of four Americans, of all ages, have been exposed to triclosan at some point in time.

And yet soap with triclosan doesn’t protect us from infections any better than a product without it. The Food and Drug Administration has made clear the best way to protect against harmful bacteria is by using old-fashioned soap and water.

It’s this simple: Soap stops germs. Triclosan only raises health risks.

In 1974, the FDA warned that triclosan required more study because of concerns about its safety and effectiveness. It has taken 37 years — and counting — for regulators to take action to limit exposure to this chemical. In our view, such action is long overdue.

Last week, former Rep. Bob Barr wrote an Opinion piece, “Antimicrobial Crusade Won’t Wash” (POLITICO, March 2), about the efforts members of Congress are taking to educate the public about the dangers of triclosan. Unfortunately, his piece was more opinion than fact.

Barr cites opinion surveys that support the use of triclosan products to combat the advent of powerful flu strains.

Here’s what the science says:

Triclosan, like all antibacterial chemicals, is designed to be useless at combating or killing the flu, the common cold or any other virus.

Even more troubling, studies show triclosan may be harmful. Studies from the Environmental Protection Agency have demonstrated that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor that interferes with reproductive and thyroid hormone function in laboratory animal studies. This is of concern, since thyroid hormone is vital for proper brain development and function. Other thyroid-disrupting chemicals have been associated with learning and behavioral problems in children.

In humans, some studies suggest that triclosan exposure is associated with sexual developmental changes, as well as allergy and hay fever diagnoses.

Studies also have pointed to the ability of triclosan to contribute to the development of antibiotic resistance, a looming public health crisis. As companies saturate the marketplace with products that make fabricated claims of flu-free homes, consumers — especially parents — need to know that many products are not only ineffective but they may also be dangerous.

The FDA issued a “consumer update” about triclosan last spring, saying that existing data raise “valid concerns about the repetitive daily human exposure.”

Triclosan has been banned or restricted in nine other countries, including members of the European Union, which recently banned triclosan’s use in products that come into contact with food.

Four companies have informed us they plan to remove the chemical from their products or introduce triclosan-free products because of changes in consumer demand or regulatory changes in other countries. But we have to ensure that more follow suit.

This is why we need regulators to take action now, and why we, as legislators, have been working diligently to make sure the companies that profit from these products and the government agencies that study them don’t wash their hands of their responsibility to protect consumers.