Stroll down the aisle of an office supply store or peruse back-to-school supply websites and you might think you're shopping for surgical ward supplies. Once reserved for hospital operating rooms, the antimicrobial chemical triclosan, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered pesticide linked to hormone disruption, allergies, and thyroid problems, is now being applied to everything from pens and pencils to scissors and binders, which are marketed as being "antibacterial" or "antimicrobial" and somehow better for your children.
"We know the bulk of triclosan in the environment and most likely in the human body comes from Food and Drug Administration-approved personal care products that contain triclosan," explains Kathy Dolan, public-health policy analyst with Food & Water Watch. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, triclosan levels in humans have increased 50 percent since 2004, and it's now being detected in human breast milk. "But we don't have any research showing how much triclosan is lost from things like lunch bags, binders, and athletic clothing."
THE DETAILS: There's plenty of evidence to suggest that using triclosan is a bad idea. Aside from research showing that it damages the thyroid, researchers link the overuse of triclosan to an increase in "superbug" bacteria strains that are becoming resistant to our antibiotics.
But beyond all of those alarming health problems, here's another reason to avoid triclosan in school products: It's a rip-off. "You'll pay more [for triclosan-treated products], and there's no evidence it does any good," explains Stuart Levy, MD, president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, who notes that consumer products use one-fifth to one-tenth the amount of triclosan that hospitals use to kill germs. Dr. Levy says the concern of the scientific and infectious disease world is that such overuse of antibiotics and chemicals like triclosan is leading to an increase of mutant bacteria that could render valuable antibiotics useless.
WHAT IT MEANS: Here's the secret companies marketing Microban- and other triclosan-containing products don't want you to know: Washing your hands with regular soap and water, or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, is safer and more effective than applying antimicrobial chemicals like triclosan to your skin. "The simple point is there's no advantage to triclosan or chemically impregnated soaps or products for the household," says Dr. Levy.
With triclosan in so many products, we're also apparently eating it. A 2010 study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology found that the antibacterial chemicals flushed down the drain from soap and cleaners often slip past wastewater treatment plants and wind up in water and fertilizer used to grow food crops. (These fields are fertilized with human sewage sludge, a practice that is banned in organic agriculture.)
Although the EPA approved the pesticide for use in products until at least 2013, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is reviewing its stance on whether triclosan should be allowed so freely in personal care products, and environmental health groups are garnering support to get this chemical out of everyday products. Last week, just as parents are gearing up for back-to-school shopping, Food & Water Watch, Beyond Pesticides, The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and the Center for Environmental Health started a petition calling on Bath and Body Works to remove triclosan from its soaps, particularly those marketed to teenage girls. "Super Lemon Fizz and cheery names are targeting young women and teens," says Dolan. "Triclosan is an endocrine disruptor, and this age frame is exactly when you want to avoid it."
Here's how to avoid harmful antibacterial chemicals in school supplies.
• Learn the code words. For personal care items regulated by the
FDA—products like toothpaste, mouthwash, and soaps—triclosan is listed on
the ingredients label. The EPA is in charge of pesticide regulation of
triclosan in other types of products, such as back-to-school binders,
clothing, rulers, and scissors, but the agency isn't set to take another
look at triclosan until 2013.
To avoid tricloscan in back-to-school products, stay away from ones that use
the terms below. Important note: Not all products that list “Microban” or
“antimicrobial” contain triclosan, but some likely do. The only way to be
100 percent sure that they don’t contain triclosan is to avoid such products
altogether, or to call the manufacturer and ask.
3. Lexol 300
4. Irgasan DP-300
5. Biofresh (Note: The trademark on this fiber ran out earlier this year,
and there’s no mention of it on the website of its manufacturer, Sterling
Chemical. So it's uncertain how many products containing it are still on the
• Choose safer sanitation methods. For germ control and infectious disease prevention, the recommendations are unanimous among the FDA and major medical associations: Just wash your hands using regular soap and water. (Follow these proper hand-washing techniques to stop the spread of colds and flu.) If you're not near a sink, FDA recommends an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with an alcohol concentration between 60 and 95 percent for effective germ-killing.
• Choose safer products. Look for backpacks made from untreated natural fibers, like those from the company Ecogear, and personal care products from companies pledging to not use triclosan.
For more nontoxic back-to-school ideas, check out Rodale.com's Nontoxic Back-to-School Shopping Guide e-book on sale now!