What we wash down the drains, we eventually drink!
When researchers isolated the chemical Triclosan – an antibacterial disinfectant – at the half-century mark, medical professionals were enthusiastic. Nosocomial infections, or those acquired in hospitals, were gradually on the rise and Triclosan formulations promised to reverse that.
The discovery was of particular benefit to nurses, who had either to wash their hands every time they touched a patient, or don latex gloves to prevent the spread of disease. In fact, Triclosan was such a success that, by the latter part of the 20th century, manufacturers were adding Triclosan to everything from bar soaps to body washes. As if that wasn’t enough protection, they also combined the chemical with the surfactants and cleaning chemicals in dishwashing soap, lipsticks, deodorants, mouthwashes and toothpastes.
My hands are clean… are yours?
This rush to make handshaking and other physical exchanges safe by killing bacteria was built on the fear engendered by the AIDS epidemic, which reached its peak in the United States about 1984. Triclosan, scientists agreed, definitely killed the creepy crawlies that spread disease.
Pleased with their accomplishment, manufacturers went one step further. They started adding Triclosan to a wider range of consumer products including bedding, computer equipment, cutting boards, ear plugs, kitchen tools, socks, bath and kitchen towels, trash bags, toys and even paint – just to reinforce the notion that you can never have enough of a good thing.
Scientists have since demonstrated that we don’t need to live in an environment as sterile as an operating room to be healthy.
Further research has proven that children who are allowed to get dirty have stronger immune systems in the long run. Tack onto that the fact that the number of products containing Triclosan (three-fourths of liquid soaps and about one-third of bar soaps, for a grand total of more than 700 antibacterial concoctions) was generating an enormous environmental burden at a time when we humans in developed nations were just beginning to confront the specter of global warming and environmental degradation via chemical pollution.
In addition, researchers – often in the employ of the very corporations whose products they had created and evaluated – acted as though they had forgotten that solving one problem (bacteria transfer) generally creates others, in keeping with Newton’s first law of motion (e.g., for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction).
We are developing antibiotic resistance, and our lakes and rivers are full of dioxins.
In the case of Triclosan, whose toxic byproduct is dioxin via the uptake of chlorine atoms in UV light in wastewater treatment plants, or simply as a result of degradation, the first and perhaps anticipated reaction was that the bacteria mutated. This alteration not only spurred Triclosan to become resistant to repeated applications of antibacterial formulations, but allowed it to block the effects of first-generation antibiotics like penicillin, and even some second-generation cephalosporins (Keflor, Cefmetazole, etc).
Triclosan production leads to residual dioxin production.
In fact, according to some very recent scientific studies, four of the most unique dioxins generated by the production of Triclosan and found nowhere else, are creating such an overburden in our lakes and rivers that damage to DNA and the nuclei of cells all up and down the food chain seems inevitable. In fact, Triclosan’s unique dioxins – 2,8-DCDD, 2,3,7-TCDD, 1,2,8-TriCDD, and 1,2,3,8-TCDD – now represent almost one-third of all dioxin pollution, rising between 200 and 300 percent over the last 50 years while nonconcurrent dioxins, in contrast, dropped as much as 90 percent.
What health professionals are now seeing as a result are increasingly pervasive instances of birth defects, cancer, reproductive complications, complicated and intractable immune system failures, neurological deficits that affect learning and comprehension, heart disease and diabetes, and that’s just a brief overview.
Why is Agent Orange in our Soap?
Dioxins, which are structurally very similar to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and to Agent Orange of Vietnam fame, survive intact for about 30 years, their ability to alter DNA only slowly diminishing with time. They are also a cumulative body burden, whether in fish, foxes or your best friend. A single large exposure might be lethal, but a slow accumulation is certainly so. The greatest amount of danger, though, might be via heritable genetic alterations which do not alter DNA but change the instructions it provides for growing a fish or a flea; we just don’t know yet.
With the dawning awareness regarding dioxins’ dangers, people have finally begun to protest a corporate mindset that often invents and distributes without adequate oversight.
They are also disappointed and frustrated by government’s inability to monitor dangerous chemicals.
“But that is the government’s job!” People argue. In truth, the government can’t. Or won’t. Instead, agencies like the FDA and the EPA rely on corporations to conduct clinical trials and prove that their products are safe. The upshot of this was a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) against the FDA for dragging its feet for 32 years on a provision that would have regulated the use of dioxin-producing chemicals. Apparently the FDA doesn’t recognize passive-aggressive resistance.
In spite of that, the biochemical industry has taken a few hits.
A federal grand jury, in 1984, exonerated Monsanto regarding its dioxin contamination at the Nitro plant in West Virginia. When negotiations failed to resolve the issue, a group of residents launched a class-action lawsuit demanding reparations for Monsanto’s negligent burning of dioxin wastes. One demand consisted of medical monitoring for up to 80,000 residents; the other provision resulted in the agrochemical giant’s agreement to pay up to $93 million to the class members.
Nor is Nitro the only location where residents have held Monsanto’s feet to the fire. A French farmer won a lawsuit against the agrochemical giant on charges that its herbicide (called Lasso) made him lose his memory, caused headaches and led him to develop a stammer. Lasso was banned in France in 2007.
The Better Living Through Chemistry campaign, which DuPont adopted in 1935 and abandoned (in shame, we hope) in 1982, exposes the lie that we can have a perfectly safe, perfectly clean world where no one and nothing smells, disease is not communicable, and everyone has perfect teeth, skin and hair. We are not the Eloi, and there are no Morlocks, though there are plenty of poor and overworked humans.
images adapted from free digital photos.net