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If you’re afraid of germs, you probably scrub your house frequently. But in that effort to be scrupulously clean, you may be endangering your health.
At first glance, the concept may seem sound: If you clean with materials that fight bacteria then you can be assured that your house and personal environment contains fewer germs that can make you sick.
In practice, however, adding antibacterial chemicals to cleaning products turns out to be a very bad idea.
For one thing, a chemical like triclosan, an antimicrobial chemical added to cutting boards, soaps, cosmetics and a variety of personal care products, is now suspected of being linked to cancer.
In a study in Norway, researchers have confirmed the fact that triclosan is an endocrine disruptor that can increase your risk of breast cancer and other types of tumors.
Endocrine disruptors are substances that act like hormones when you absorb them through the skin or ingest them. But they are like your hormones’ evil twins: warping how cells develop, making them more likely to become cancerous.
The Norwegian research focused on two endocrine disruptors: triclosan and octylphenol, a chemical commonly added to plastic, paint and pesticides.
In lab tests performed on breast cancer cells, the researchers discovered that both of these chemicals alter gene function and accelerate the growth of tumors. Exposure to both chemicals has a synergistic effect, leading to the tumors that are larger and denser.
“Although the doses of EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals) were somewhat high, we did this to simulate their effects of daily exposure, as well as body accumulation due to long-term exposure, simultaneously in animal experiments,” says researcher Kyung-Chul Choi.
Choi’s study concludes: “Thus, exposure to EDCs may significantly increase the risk of breast cancer development and adversely affect human health.”
Triclosan has also been shown to increase the risk that kids develop allergic reactions.
In a study that examined allergies in 10-year-olds, researchers found that the amount of triclosan found in children’s urine (showing that kids were exposed to the chemical and their bodies were disposing of it) correlated with the intensity of their allergy symptoms.
Kids with the highest levels of triclosan had the worst hay fever.
The problem originates, say researchers, with the fact that triclosan kills both good and bad bacteria. It doesn’t discriminate. But the good bacteria in your digestive tract and on your skin helps your immune system avoid allergic reactions. Wipe them out, and your chances of developing debilitating allergies grows significantly.
Another risk from triclosan: It is strongly suspected of causing reproductive and developmental problems in pregnant women and their babies. And a study at Arizona State University shows that just about every American has triclosan circulating in their bodies.
“We looked at the exposure of pregnant women and their fetuses to triclosan and triclocarban, two of the most commonly used germ-killers in soaps and other everyday products,” says researcher Benny Pycke. “We found triclosan in all of the urine samples from the pregnant women that we screened. We also detected it in about half of the umbilical cord blood samples we took, which means it transfers to fetuses.”
Unfortunately, although many medical researchers believe that triclosan should be banned in consumer products, the Food and Drug Administration has waffled on what it intends to do about the chemical.
“If you cut off the source of exposure, eventually triclosan and triclocarban (another endocrine disruptor) would quickly be diluted out, but the truth is that we have universal use of these chemicals, and therefore also universal exposure,” says researcher Rolf Halden.
You should avoid triclosan wherever possible. But the Arizona scientists say it is found in about 2,000 consumer products including toothpaste, carpet, school supplies and toys.