Triclosan is the compound that kicked hand washing up a notch over the past 20 years as antibacterial soaps became the household standard. But researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis have found that chlorine from tap water binds to triclosan converting it into chemicals called dioxins – a toxic family of compounds.
Dioxins mimic estrogens and have the potential to disturb the endocrine system of aquatic animals and even plants. They are well known for having especially severe effects on amphibians such as frogs that have water permeable skin prone to taking up toxins in the water that they live in.
Estrogens are hormones most well known for their effects on the female reproductive cycle (it is the main ingredient in many oral contraceptives). But estrogens also effect growth, metabolism, fluid balance, and the function of muscles, bones, lungs, and the intestines just to name a few. Estrogens also help certain hormone-sensitive breast cancers to grow.
While it is still unclear just how toxic the dioxin byproducts of antibacterial hand soap are, one thing that we are sure of is that the effects of these chemicals could be far reaching… especially as this chlorinated triclosan is released into streams, rivers and watersheds. Is antibacterial soap another good idea gone down the drain?
Check out the study for yourself in Environmental Science & Technology.
Want to know how dioxin gets in your body? See graphics on the Dioxin Homepage.
Check out some info on dioxin from the Environmental Protection Agency
Hand-washing thermogram image by Scientifica/Corbis