What's the truth about TRICLOSAN?

By Barbara Lantin

(Filed: 21/04/2005) Telegraph report

Can brushing your teeth with toothpaste containing the antibacterial agent triclosan really lead to cancer, as recent reports have suggested? The truth is much more complicated, says Barbara Lantin

What is triclosan?

A chlorinated phenolic bactericide (a bacteria killer) that is added to products to fight bacteria, moulds and yeasts and to prevent odour. According to manufacturers Ciba Specialty Chemicals: "It stays on skin or surfaces after cleaning, and therefore provides long-lasting action against germs." Independent research confirmed this.

Where do you find it?

Sixty to 90 tonnes of the stuff are used in Britain each year in personal hygiene products - toothpaste, soap, deodorants and acne treatments - some detergents, and in plastic products such as chopping boards. Boots, Waitrose and Tesco antibacterial handwashes contain triclosan, as do Colgate Total, Macleans Precision Complete Care and Mentadent P. It is listed in the ingredients.

Is it safe?

According to Ciba "it is perfectly safe in all current applications". Although it is approved under the EU Cosmetics Directive, the amount that can be used is limited to no more than 0.3 per cent of the total product, which speaks for itself.

The Environment Agency has some concerns, but believes that the extensive data "provide no evidence to indicate that it causes adverse effects on human health".

So what is the fuss about?

Recent research from Virginia Tech University in America has shown that, when triclosan is mixed with chlorinated water, it produces chloroform gas - branded by the US Environmental Protection Agency as "a probable carcinogen".

The researchers' conclusion that "the potential exists for substantial chloroform production to occur via daily household use of triclosan-containing products" has, understandably, sent people into a lather, with several scientists pointing out that inhaling chloroform, or absorbing it through the skin, could be doing us harm.

But no scientist has said that toothpaste can cause cancer. "Our results are based on a laboratory study, and their direct relation to 'real world' situations is currently unknown," says Prof Peter Vikesland, the lead researcher on the Virginia Tech study.

Furthermore, his team worked with soap and warm water: "We have not done any work with toothpaste. Given that chloroform production is strongly affected by many factors - including triclosan concentration, the temperature of the water, its acidity and chlorine concentration levels - it is highly premature to presume that there is a problem associated with the use of triclosan-containing toothpastes. At this time, I don't believe there is any cause for alarm, but additional tests clearly need to be conducted."

The bottom line?

"This is not another Sudan 1," says Dr Giles Watson, toxics policy officer with the WWF, referring to the food colourant scare. "Products containing triclosan do not need to be yanked off the shelves, but we would like to see its use phased out."

While Prof Vikesland tends to avoid products containing triclosan, he is not advocating a ban. "As an antimicrobial agent, triclosan has some benefits when used judiciously.

"However, we need to consider both the risks and the benefits associated with its incorporation in many of the products we use today."

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.

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