Why did Kaiser Permanente pull antibacterial soaps with triclosan from its 37 hospitals nationwide in 2010 and switch to traditional soaps and alcohol based hand sanitizers?

The hospital chain phased out this toxic chemical because of its “precautionary approach” to safety and scientific evidence that triclosan is causing more harm than good. Signs have been mounting for years that triclosan and other chemicals in pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) harm humans, wildlife and the environment. (For more about the problems go to: www.paseagrant.org/topics/toxins.)

But that has not stopped manufacturers from using them. Nor has it changed the patterns of prescribing medications to consider the impact that PPCPs have on the environment and human health. While the 1972 Clean Water Act requires the EPA to regulate all pollutants, it would take an act of Congress to add these new toxins to the priority pollutant list to be regulated. Furthermore, the $50 billion PCP industry in the United States is largely unregulated, so products you buy can contain chemicals that harm wildlife and that are linked to cancer, birth defects, infertility and other chronic diseases.

That’s why Kaiser took voluntary steps and why Minnesota recently passed legislation banning triclosan in consumer soaps and why Vermont passed the Toxic-Free Families Act. Actions like these are the easiest, least expensive way to protect people and the environment from the harm caused by PPCPs, but they are not enough.

Every person must do his or her part to fix these problems. And that’s why after a Pennsylvania Sea Grant presentation at Mercyhurst University in 2013, students took action to change individual behavior that would have the most impact — eliminating unnecessary toxic chemicals from products they use. Together with their professor, Anne Zaphiris, and PA Sea Grant staff, Marti Martz and Anna McCartney, they completed year one of a social change campaign they created called Fresh Face Forward to educate the college community about the issues and ask them to change their purchasing habits.

The campaign has begun year two on the Mercyhurst campus and has been expanded to the Penn State Behrend campus. The group hopes to secure funding to bring the campaign to Sea Grant colleges and universities in the Great Lakes states and then nationally.

There is proof that knowledge and these small decisions can create significant changes. When we don’t buy products with toxic chemicals, companies are forced to provide safer choices. With pressure from consumer and environmental groups, Johnson & Johnson announced in 2012 that it would eliminate chemicals of concern from baby and adult products, including triclosan, parabens, phthalates and preservatives that release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. In September 2013, Procter & Gamble announced it would eliminate triclosan and the phthalate DEP from all products by 2014 and Wal-Mart asked manufacturers to eliminate as many as 10 unsafe toxic chemicals from products sold in its stores. One month later, Target announced a new sustainability standard to evaluate and rank personal care and cleaning products based on ingredient safety and disclosure and environmental impact.

Still, many have yet to take any action: many chemical companies, drug companies and those that make the products; businesses that sell the products; health-care providers that prescribe and dispense the products; politicians who make the laws, and agencies that enforce those laws.

Don’t wait. Become part of the solution. Read the labels and ask questions before making purchases or decisions about your health care. If we don’t buy toxins, there’s no need to worry about toxins on us or in the environment. If we insist, health-care providers will stop prescribing unnecessary medications and instead focus on prevention. Set an example for your family and friends. Share what you learned and your concern with elected representatives and others. Prevention really is the only strategy.

Issue Publication Date: 
Tuesday, September 30, 2014

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