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Children's Health

Safety of Antibacterial Soap Debated

Researchers See Potential Health Hazards; Manufacturers Say Products Are Safe
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Industry Reaction

Brian Sansoni, spokesman for the Soap and Detergent Association, an organization headquartered in Washington D.C. that represents manufacturers of all kinds of cleaning products, says studies have shown the products are safe.

"They have been reviewed and analyzed and studied by scientists and government agencies for decades," Sansoni says. "We're disappointed at some of the alarmist conclusions made by the authors."

Sansoni confirms that a representative of the association plans to meet with U.C. Davis researchers. But he says their findings aren't too worrisome.

"Consumers can continue to safely use antibacterial soap and hygiene products with confidence," he says.

The Government's Perspective

Developed in the 1950s and 1960s, triclocarban and triclosan were first used mainly as antiseptic agents in hospitals. Sales of consumer antibacterial products took off in the early 1990s, backed by multimillion-dollar ad campaigns for popular soap. By 2004, manufacturers were introducing hundreds of new antibacterial products every year.

The EPA is in the process of re-evaluating triclosan. A draft report published in the Federal Register in May 2008 concludes that it doesn't pose any serious safety concerns for consumers. The European Commission reached the same conclusions about triclosan in 2002 and triclocarban in 2005.

The data on toxic effects cited in these reports primarily come from animal studies dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, which were not designed to detect the same kinds of effects that the U.C. Davis researchers are now studying in the lab and in animals.

"The science itself I think is quite good," says Kevin Crofton, PhD, a neurotoxicologist with the EPA's National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, when asked about the U.C. Davis research. "The conclusions are where it gets hard. They're pointing out something that's new. Does it require further study? Absolutely. But the thing that I think you have to keep in mind is that what we don't really know is the relationship between human exposures and the exposures in those studies."

The effects seen in the laboratory may not necessarily occur in people. "We need to follow that up," Crofton says.

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