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The chemicals in some everyday soaps threaten Great Lakes water quality

You may not have heard of triclosan, but washing your hands with Dial anti-bacterial soap or brushing your teeth with Colgate Total is likely polluting Lake Erie and Lake Ontario with the chemical.

Scientists remain unsure about the scope of the problem because they lack local data. But samples from Lake Superior show a troubling trend: Popular antimicrobial personal products are washing down the drains of our sinks and bathtubs into the Great Lakes.

Once there, the chemicals triclosan and triclocarban damage freshwater ecosystems, some scientists say.

The chemicals disrupt the aquatic food chain, increasing resistant bacteria, creating toxic dioxins and contaminating marine life.

“When we wash our hands, we shouldn’t be adding toxic pollutants to the Great Lakes,” said Brian Smith of Citizens’ Campaign for the Environment.

The chemicals pose yet another threat to the health of the Great Lakes at a time when they’re also threatened by plastic microbeads, pharmaceuticals and dissolved phosphorous, not to mention toxic blue-green algae and invasive species.

“Is triclosan making its way into the system? The answer is almost certainly,” said Bill Arnold, a professor of civil, environmental and geo-engineering at the University of Minnesota.

Arnold co-wrote a seminal paper on the issue in late 2013 about triclosan in Lake Superior and several inland lakes.

A 2010 joint government and industry study into emerging chemicals in the Great Lakes revealed triclosan to be among the personal care products “most frequently detected in Great Lakes waters.” Researchers detected the chemical in nearly 90 percent of surface water samples from the Great Lakes basin, according to the study.

Another study confirmed triclosan to be “highly toxic to algae,” which is essential to the aquatic food chain. The chemical also affects reproduction and development in some fish species, including rainbow trout.

“Given the population densities on the other Great Lakes relative to Lake Superior, there would likely be a higher concentration in those other lakes,” Arnold said. “That’s a perfectly logical leap.”

Wastewater plant operators consider triclosan, along with microbeads and pharmaceuticals, as “contaminants of emerging concern,” said Joseph L. Fiegl, deputy commissioner of the Erie County Division of Sewerage Management.

But local wastewater plants are not required to test for and remove triclosan – unlike phosphorus, nitrogen and ammonia among other chemicals.

“The science really isn’t out there 100 percent,” Fiegl said.

On store shelves

Consumers who perceive antimicrobial products to be healthier and better at fighting germs spend an estimated $1 billion a year in the U.S. on antibacterial products containing triclosan.

That’s resulted in a higher use of these chemicals.

At stores across the Buffalo Niagara region, shoppers can find antibacterial hand and dish soaps with familiar names that contain the chemicals: Dial, Safeguard, Dawn and Ajax.

Drugstores offer an assortment of products: Clean foaming hand soap, Renewal liquid hand soap, Great Value dishwashing liquid and hand soap, Top Care foaming hand soap, and Valu Time hand soap. Colgate Total toothpaste also has the chemical.

With pressure mounting from environmental groups to eliminate triclosan from consumer products, federal regulators from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration have begun assessing the chemical.

In May, the EPA denied a citizen petition to ban triclosan outright on the grounds that “currently available information” did not justify a ban. The agency, however, agreed to conduct a “biological assessment” of the effects triclosan may have on some protected species.

EPA officials, citing triclosan’s “rapidly developing scientific database,” pushed up its schedule for reviewing the chemical by a full decade – from 2023 to 2013. That review process is ongoing.

In 2008, the agency determined, based on modeling, that triclosan concentrations in surface water from “EPA-registered uses” did not exceed concentrations that would harm aquatic animals and plants.

Over the last two years, the FDA – acknowledging use of products with triclosan and triclocarban “may carry unnecessary risks” – began requiring manufacturers to show triclosan is both safe and effective for use in over-the-counter consumer soaps and body washes. It exempted that rule when the products are used in health care settings.

“New data suggest that the risks associated with long-term, daily use of antibacterial soaps may outweigh the benefits,” according to FDA lead microbiologist Colleen Rogers on the agency’s website.

Industry reaction

For its part, the industry considers triclosan safe, even as many companies now shift from using the chemical in their formulas.

Colgate Palmolive Co., which markets Softsoap, switched to benzethonium chloride, an alternative antimicrobial product, a few years ago. The company called studies biased because of sampling near wastewater treatment outfalls. The company said the chemical dilutes into reduced, environmentally safe concentrations in water.

“The safety of triclosan-containing products has been well-demonstrated and the science on triclosan has not significantly changed since EPA completed its comprehensive review of triclosan in 2008,” Colgate Palmolive Co. told the EPA in May 2013.

As for Colgate Total, the company maintains the “uniquely formulated” toothpaste with 0.3 percent triclosan “provides an important health benefit recognized by health authorities” in promoting oral health and small amounts of the chemical in the environment are safe.

“It is important to recognize that presence of a chemical does not equate to risk of harm,” the company said in a statement to The Buffalo News. “Detailed assessments based on real-world environmental concentrations – which take into account drought and other worst-case conditions – show no evidence of harm from the low level of triclosan entering the environment.”

Others companies have also shifted away from triclosan, including Johnson & Johnson and P&G.

“Although triclosan is known to be safe through numerous studies and regulatory reviews, there are ongoing discussions about how effective it is for reducing bacteria compared to regular soap,” according to P&G’s website. “Due to our limited use of the ingredient, we have decided to eliminate triclosan from our products. We have eliminated triclosan from more than 99 percent of the products where it was used and have an exit plan for the few remaining uses.”

Most recently, Dial’s “new active total clean formula” line of hand soaps and a “triclosan free” hand soap by Top Care are landing on store shelves, displacing much of the stock containing triclosan.

Clean water advocates call that good progress, but too late.

“Triclosan, and its cousin triclocarban, as a result of widespread use in many over-the-counter, ‘down-the-drain’ products, have succeeded in contaminating waterways and wastewater systems,” said Nichelle Harriott, science and regulatory director at Beyond Pesticides.

No local testing

The suds from all those products get washed down the drain and into the sanitary sewer and then the wastewater plant.

At the plant, a large amount of the triclosan is removed – between 67 and 99 percent – depending on the treatment system. But remnants of the chemical, or byproducts associated with the process, are spilled into lakes in treated discharge water from the plant, according to a report by the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

“The extent to which it’s filtered out or removed depends on the system,” said Olga Lyandres, an Alliance research manager. “Some are more effective at it than others.”

Arnold’s Minnesota study confirmed triclosan concentrations in inland Minnesota lakes and Lake Superior originated from treated wastewater plant discharges.

That prompted Minnesota to ban the chemical from products, except in restaurants and hospital settings, starting Jan. 1, 2017. It’s the only state to do so.

Restrictions on the chemical’s use are in effect in the European Union, and clean water advocates are pressuring U.S. and Canadian governments to remove triclosan from personal care products.

“Many safer and effective alternatives already exist,” said Jill Jedlicka, executive director of Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.

There’s no data showing how much triclosan sewage plants release into Lake Erie or the Niagara River.

The Buffalo Sewer Authority is not required to test and monitor triclosan as part of its environmental discharge permit, according to Julie Barrett O’Neill, the authority’s lawyer.

The same is true for Erie County’s facilities, Fiegl said.

“That’s not something we specifically test for,” he said. “The plant is not specifically designed to remove it, but it may.”

‘Cocktail of chemicals’

What’s released into the water from chlorine-treated wastewater plant discharges is any triclosan not removed by the treatment process and also “chlorinated triclosan derivatives,” said Arnold, the Minnesota professor.

“The issue with triclosan is once it gets into the environment, it forms a number of different things,” Arnold said.

The problem is exacerbated when triclosan and byproduct molecules are exposed to sunlight.

That’s when they’re photo-transformed into one of four different forms of dioxin.

Dioxin, in the same family of chemicals responsible for the contamination of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, is a chemical regarded by the EPA as “highly toxic” and carcinogenic. It’s also linked with reproductive and developmental problems as well as impaired immune and hormonal function, according to the EPA.

Other toxic post-treatment byproducts include chloroform or methyl-triclosan.

“You have this cocktail of chemicals that are discharged in the wastewater, and there is very little information as to the effects,” said Lyandres, of the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Officials at Colgate-Palmolive point out that the dioxins resulting from the breakdown of triclosan “are considered low in toxicity and do not demonstrate the characteristics of dioxins of concern” and that use of the term in connection with environmental and human risk is “unwarranted.” The company also said risk evaluations show the balance of the ecosytem remains unaffected by triclosan.

Great Lakes advocates contend triclosan leads to unnecessary environmental side effects and human health hazards, because most antimicrobial products aren’t any more effective than formulas without the chemical.

Studies suggest exposure to triclosan can have chemical effects on the human endocrine system, which regulates hormones, and promotes the rise and proliferation of resistant bacteria.

What’s more, the chemicals and byproducts cling to particles in the water and then eventually the sediment of lakes and rivers.

“It’s certainly a biologically active compound,” Arnold said. “We think of algae as a nuisance, but it’s also the base of the food chain.”

Harriott, of Beyond Pesticides, added: “It has a trickle-up in the food web affect. It can biologically accumulate in aquatic organisms like fish.”

And, for Lake Erie – which holds half of the fish in the Great Lakes basin – that matters.

“It’s an example of a chemical we use in our houses by choice,” Arnold said. “The choices we make have the potential for effects well beyond our household.”