By MATTHEW PERRONE
WASHINGTON — It’s a chemical that’s been in U.S. households for more than 40 years, from the body wash in your bathroom shower to the knives on your kitchen counter to the bedding in your baby’s basinet.
But federal health regulators are just now deciding whether triclosan — the germ-killing ingredient found in an estimated 75 percent of antibacterial liquid soaps and body washes sold in the U.S. — is ineffective, or worse, harmful.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is planning to deliver a review this year of whether triclosan is safe. The ruling, which will determine whether triclosan continues to be used in household cleaners, could have implications for a $1 billion industry that includes hundreds of antibacterial products from toothpaste to toys.
The agency’s review comes amid growing pressure from lawmakers, consumer advocates and others who are concerned about the safety of triclosan. Recent studies of triclosan in animals have led scientists to worry that it could increase the risk of infertility, early puberty and other hormone-related problems in humans.
“To me it looks like the risks outweigh any benefit associated with these products right now,” said Allison Aiello, professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “At this point, it’s just looking like a superfluous chemical.”
The concerns over triclosan offer a sobering glimpse at a little-known fact: Many chemicals used in everyday household products have never been formally approved by U.S. health regulators. That’s because many germ-killing chemicals were developed decades ago before there were laws requiring scientific review of cleaning ingredients.
The FDA’s website currently states that “the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.”
The American Cleaning Institute, a cleaning products trade organization, says it has provided reams of data to FDA showing that triclosan is both safe and effective.
“Triclosan is one of the most reviewed and researched ingredients used in consumer and health care products,” says Brian Sansoni, a spokesman for the group, whose members include Colgate-Palmolive and Henkel Consumer Goods Inc., maker of Dial soap.
In 2007, researchers at the University of Michigan and other universities compiled data from 30 studies looking at the use of antibacterial soaps. The results showed soaps with triclosan were no more effective at preventing illness or reducing bacteria on the hands than plain soap.
Some experts argue that routine use of antibacterial chemicals like triclosan is contributing to a surge in drug-resistant germs, or superbugs, that are immune to antibiotics. Few studies have attempted to track antibiotic resistance tied to Triclosan in the real world. But laboratory studies have shown that antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli and other bacteria can grow in cultures with high levels of triclosan.
As a result of the growing concerns, some leading medical societies, hospitals and companies have abandoned the chemical.