08/20/2012 07:52 EDT | Updated 10/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Is Your Anti-Bacterial Handwash Harming You?


The term "antibacterial" has been used since the 1940s but only gained a hold of the market in the mid-1990s thanks to the widespread use of the antibacterial agent triclosan.

Originally trademarked in 1964 as IRGASAN DP300 by the now defunct company Ciba Specialty Chemicals, the chemical gained fame for its ability to prevent bacterial growth in cultures and reduce the level of certain fungi and viruses.

By the turn of the millennium, triclosan was in over 20 different kinds of products ranging from soaps to socks to toys to toothpaste. In an interview back in 1995, a chemist with a major corporation that sold triclosan suggested that it was "at least 90 per cent more effective against germs than ordinary soap".

But triclosan has a dark side that has only come to light in the last decade. The scientific literature has been peppered with articles showing the potential side effects to triclosan use. As early as 1975, researchers have shown that the chemical can cause skin problems such as dermatitis if used in high enough concentrations.

Another study from Sweden performed a quarter century later showed that regular use of triclosan led to the presence of the chemical in human milk samples suggesting the potential for accumulation in the body. A second study that same year showed that triclosan could also be found in blood plasma adding evidence to the potential for accumulation. But a partial confirmation only happened this year with the identification of the chemical in the liver, fat and even the brain.

While no long term effects have been identified with these levels of bioaccumulation, a new study has been released that suggests that high levels of triclosan in the body could lead to an impairment of muscle function and could potentially lead to heart problems. The study comes from the laboratories of Drs. Bruce Hammock and Isaac Pessah at the University of California, Davis, and focuses on the mechanics of muscle action, known as excitation-contraction coupling (ECC). ECC is a highly complicated process that involves a cascade of steps in which a neurological signal results in the contraction of muscle.

With over a decade of work devoted to understanding how pollution affects humans and the environment, Hammock turned to triclosan which has a similar structure to several persistent organic pollutants. He teamed with the ECC expert, Dr. Pessah, to test the effect of triclosan on muscle contraction in two well known animal models: mice and the fish species, gap minnow.

The results showed that triclosan did indeed have an effect on the test animals; reducing the ability of both cardiac and skeletal muscle strength in mice and depressing swimming behaviour in the minnows. The results were similar to that of other organic pollutants and the authors suggest that bioaccumulation could indeed lead to muscle problems and health complications in the future.

Ironically, while these results on the effects of triclosan on human health continue to gain headlines, it is the impact of the chemical on the aquatic ecosystem and the potential for bioaccumulation in fish that has led regulators, including Environment Canada to reconsider its use. According to the Preliminary Assessment of Triclosan, this chemical may threaten the survival of aquatic organisms such as algae, invertebrates, amphibians and fish. While a final decision has yet to be announced, the likelihood is that triclosan will soon find itself listed as a toxin in Canada and other countries are sure to follow suit.

Even if triclosan finds itself off the shelves, there's no reason to panic. The term antibacterial will continue to live on as there are a number of non-triclosan antibacterial hygiene products that offer increased protection through the reduction of germs. Some of these products use disinfectants such as alcohol, hydrogen peroxide and benzalkonium chloride while others feature metals including silver. These products are safe for use and will surely fill the gap left by the loss of triclosan into the future.

Considering the goal of all of antibacterial products is to increase health and safety, it'll be nice to know that what's inside the container will be just as safe.