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Safety of Antibacterial Soap Debated

Researchers See Potential Health Hazards; Manufacturers Say Products Are Safe
WebMD Health News

May 29, 2008 -- Millions of Americans use antibacterial soaps and household cleaners every day, believing that their germ-killing ability will keep them and their families healthier.

But could these same chemicals that fight germs also be hazardous to your health?

That's a question being studied by a group of researchers at the University of California, Davis. In three separate studies, the researchers showed that the chemicals -- triclosan and triclocarban -- have potential to affect sex hormones and interfere with the nervous system.

They also may become suspects in the search for causes of autism.

Dan Chang, PhD, a professor of environmental engineering at U.C. Davis and one of the researchers involved, says he doesn't want to cause a panic, but "the public should be aware of some of the concerns."

While Chang and the other researchers involved in the studies admit that it's too early to know whether the chemicals pose a serious health risk, it's already been shown that the cleaners might not work any better than regular soap and water -- and may contribute to the rise of resistant bacteria. So, they ask, why take the risk?

In October, the researchers will pose that question when they meet with representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the CDC, and some of the product manufacturers to talk about what they view as a potential public health problem.

The stakes are high for the manufacturers: Antibacterial products account for about $1 billion in sales annually. Triclosan is found in 76% of all liquid soap sold in stores and is also added to toothpaste, mouthwash, cosmetics, fabrics, and plastic kitchenware. Triclocarban is a common additive in antibacterial bar soap and deodorant.

"These compounds should be voluntarily removed by consumer product manufacturers," Chang tells WebMD, or at least, consumers should "be provided precautionary information regarding their use."

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