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Myth of a Germ-Free World: A Closer Look at Antimicrobial Products

Killing microorganisms has become a national obsession. A pair of antimicrobial compounds known as triclosan and triclocarban are lately the weapons of choice in our war of attrition against the microbial world. Both chemicals are found in an array of personal care products like antimicrobial soaps, and triclosan also is formulated into everyday items ranging from plastics and toys to articles of clothing.

But are these antimicrobial chemicals, as commonly used by people across the nation, really safe for human health and the environment? More pointedly, do they even work? According to associate professor Rolf Halden, of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, the answer to these questions is an emphatic "No."

A biologist and engineer, Halden is interested in chemicals produced in high volume for consumer use. "I follow the pathways of these substances and try to figure out what they do to the environment, what they do to us and how we can better manage them."

The antimicrobial triclosan was patented in 1964, and began its use in clinical settings, where it was found to be a potent bacterial killer, useful before surgical procedures. Since then, industry's drive to convince consumers of the need for antimicrobials has been aggressive and highly effective. Antimicrobials made their first appearance in commercial hand soaps in the 1980s and by 2001, 76 percent of liquid hand soaps contained the chemical.

Antimicrobials have become a billion dollar a year industry and these chemicals now pervade the environment and our bodies. Levels of triclosan in humans have increased by an average of 50 percent since 2004, according to newly updated data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Triclosan and triclocarban are present in 60 percent of all rivers and streams nationwide and analysis of lake sediments have shown a steady increase in triclosan since the 1960s. Antimicrobial chemicals appear in household dust where they may act as allergens, and alarmingly, 97 percent of all U.S. women show detectable levels of triclosan in their breast milk. Such unnecessary exposures carry risks which, at present, are ill-defined.
 
 

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