12/22/2011 12:23 EST | Updated 02/21/2012 05:12 EST

Practice "Safe Shopping" This Holiday

The holiday season is a veritable carnival of consumption. While some of us might avoid the festive shopping, hiding from malls and the financial stress they can bring, if you do plan to hit the stores between now and New Years, remember to practice safe shopping.

Many products on our shelves contain ingredients that are harmful to our health and to the environment and it's not always easy to spot which items these are.

One of the most widespread of these harmful ingredients is an anti-bacterial agent called triclosan. So what is it, and why are my colleagues and I staying away from products that contain it?

Triclosan, also known as Microban, is an anti-bacterial chemical used in hundreds of products from soap to makeup and even smartphone cases. If a product has "anti-bacterial" on the label, take a closer look. Does your smartphone case really need to be laced with germ-killing chemicals? Before you let the germaphobic worries crowd your mind, consider the side effects.

The Canadian Medical Association has called for triclosan to be banned from consumer products out of concern that triclosan could contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as "superbugs." Triclosan is also a known endocrine disruptor -- interfering with the human body's natural hormones. Many endocrine disruptors have been linked to thyroid problems and cancer.

On its own triclosan is a problem, but put together with other trouble-makers you have a total delinquent. Triclosan reacts with the chlorine in treated tap water to form chloroform, a known carcinogen. Even if you never use the stuff yourself, you are likely to find triclosan in tap water because wastewater treatment technologies don't remove it all.

Because triclosan can't be completely removed through wastewater treatment, it escapes into our rivers and lakes. Indeed, Swiss researchers have found that "Triclosan, as well as other antibacterial agents... are now found throughout the environment, including surface waters, soil, fish tissue, and human breast milk."

In the great outdoors, triclosan is affected by sunlight and natural chemical processes and can be transformed into methyl triclosan, dioxins, and other chlorinated compounds. The delicate food webs of aquatic ecosystems can be disrupted and changed as a result of exposure to triclosan, as evidenced by its presence in fish tissue.

It's sad to think that we use an antibacterial product to keep our families safe and end up creating dangerous toxins that are found in the very water we drink and the fish we eat.

So what's the alternative to cleaning your house and hands with triclosan? Keep clean the old-fashioned way, washing your hands with soap and water for at least 10 seconds. Even better, use a biodegradable soap like something glycerin-based to avoid adding unnecessary nutrients to the water which contribute to algae blooms and excessive weed growth.

Avoid purchasing products that contain triclosan and other toxic ingredients. Through December, the Environmental Defence blog is full of advice on non-toxic gifting. Visit our site for more help with safe shopping this season.