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As far back as 1998, the people of Sweden were spitting out two tons of triclosan per year in their antibacterial toothpastes alone. In 2002, the chemical was detected in the country’s municipal wastewaters, fish, and human breast milk.
Triclocarban, of which 1.7 million pounds are produced in the US each year, was found at high levels downstream from three sewage-treatment plants out of nine surveyed across nine states. But it was in the treated solids—sludge—where the chemical built up to more than a million times the concentration flowing into the plants.
Triclosan behaves similarly. Speaking to Scientific American, Rolf Halden of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health explained that the buildup in bacteria-laden sewage solids is of particular concern because sludge is used to fertilize food crops. That, he said, “could be a recipe for breeding antimicrobial resistance.”
And along with resistant bacteria, there are the prospects of dead algae, ailing fish and amphibians, and even sick humans. In a 2003 Japanese study, triclosan was acutely toxic to very young fish and caused liver damage in older males. And triclocarban can amplify the action of testosterone in humans and rats.
In other recent experiments, triclosan disrupted the functioning of frogs’ thyroid glands. That is especially worrisome, says Sutton, because “the effects occurred even at concentrations less than those found in many of the country’s streams, and the human and frog thyroid systems are very similar.”
The fear factor
To declare war on household bacteria is to lose—inevitably. You’ve probably seen the slogan many times on Lysol products: “Kills 99.9 percent of germs in 30 seconds.” And who’s to doubt it? But under good conditions, the much-feared bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, for example, doubles its numbers every 30 minutes through cell division. So once the Lysol has worn off and the surviving bacteria go back to multiplying, the population could grow to its pre-Lysol size in as little as five hours.
Rather than stockpile buckets of disinfectant and spray every surface in the house every few hours, most independent researchers recommend that we settle for a stalemate in the war on microbes. But the home-products industry has other ideas.
Along with nursing and family groups, Clorox cosponsors a “Say Boo to the Flu” campaign, which, along with videos on hand washing and vaccination, features microbiologist Dr. Kelly Reynolds of the University of Arizona advising parents to be sure the cleaning products they buy are labeled “disinfecting” or that they contain chlorine bleach or quaternary ammonium compounds—both of which are made by Clorox.
(A well-publicized 2002 study conducted by Reynolds’s Arizona colleagues—and funded by Clorox—found that the average office desk is populated with 400 times as many bacteria as the average toilet seat. That sounds terrifying until you remember that neither desks nor toilet seats are significant causes of any kind of illness.)
WebMD’s Flu Prevention page, sponsored by Lysol, features straightforward articles like one on the universally recommended practice of hand washing with plain soap and water. Alongside that are “Flu tips for parents,” in which a Dr. Jim Sears recommends that “one of the most important ways to protect your family and stop viruses dead in their tracks is to disinfect commonly touched surfaces with a disinfectant spray or wipe, such as those made by Lysol®.”
The Dial Corporation, which kicked off combat against skin-borne microbes with a deodorant in the 1940s, boosted sales of its antibacterial soaps in 2003 with a series of less-than-subtle TV ads. Featuring a range of scenarios—a kid urinating in a swimming pool, a man using someone else’s sweat-drenched towel in a gym, a nudist group riding a bus—the commercials fed buyers’ germ-phobia.
One of the company’s vice presidents told USA Today, “We had been talking to focus groups, and consumers were coming back and saying, ‘I’m clean enough.’ We were stuck with this dilemma. But we turned it around and came up with [the ads’] premise: ‘You’re not as clean as you think you are.’“
Antibacterial compounds in bar soap or shoe insoles are there to make you smell better, not to keep you healthy. Used in mop handles, computer mouses, or telephones, they are intended to protect the object, not you, against degradation by run-of-the-mill bacteria and fungi. And bathing with antibacterial soap offers no protection when you swallow pee-laced pool water.