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Safety of Antibacterial Soap Debated

Researchers See Potential Health Hazards; Manufacturers Say Products Are Safe

The Government's Perspective continued...

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.

What the Reseachers Found: Triclosan

Chang, who coordinates the university's studies on triclosan and triclocarban as part of the Superfund Basic Research Program, supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health, says the U.C. Davis research doesn't contradict findings that triclosan and triclocarban are safe for most people.

But it does show that "there may be sensitive periods in development when these compounds could have a very subtle detrimental effect." Translation: If the compounds cause harm, they are most likely to do so during pregnancy, early childhood, and adolescence.

Chang argues that antibacterial soaps don't do enough good to risk this potential harm.

In 2005, an FDA advisory panel concluded that antibacterial soaps, as used by the general public, don't prevent illness any better than ordinary soap, and they may contribute to the rise of resistant bacteria.

In one study, recently accepted for publication in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives and made available online, Isaac Pessah, PhD, director of the U.C. Davis Children's Center for Environmental Health, looked at how triclosan may affect the brain.

Pessah's test-tube study found that the chemical attached itself to special "receptor" molecules on the surface of cells. This raises calcium levels inside the cell. Cells overloaded with calcium get overexcited. In the brain, these overexcited cells may burn out neural circuits, which could lead to an imbalance that affects mental development.

Some people may carry a mutated gene that makes it easier for triclosan to attach to their cells. That could make them more vulnerable to any effects triclosan may cause.

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