Antibacterial soaps in the backcountry


I try not to be one of those people who buy into every alarmist headline about how common products will poison me. Over the years, consumer safety scares have come and gone with predictable regularity. Eggs were forbidden cholesterol-bombs for a while. Caffeine was blamed for just about every possible malady, and then (at least partially) exonerated. And diet soda takes a new hit every few weeks, it seems. 

With guarded skepticism, then, I’ve been following the long-lived debate over another product: antibacterial sanitizers and soaps. Their popularity was reinforced to me last month on a Grand Canyon river trip. Official recommendations for avoiding the Norovirus outbreak that was circulating among some groups involved lots of hand sanitizing.

The common denominators in many sanitizing products and soaps are the compounds triclosan or triclocarban, which have been in use since the mid-twentieth century in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. However, the 1990s saw an increase in development and marketing of antibacterial soaps and hygiene products. Soon after, disturbing reports about possible negative health effects, including hormone disruption, began surfacing, as well as questions about whether such products were any more effective than ordinary soap. These reports were well publicized. Around the same time, however, outbreaks of scary epidemics such as bird flu fueled hyperawareness of cleanliness. Hand sanitizer dispensers showed up everywhere. Most K-12 teachers I know keep large containers of the stuff in their classrooms. 

Still, new negative effects are being found. Recent studies link triclosan to muscle weakness in mice, and many researchers, including some at my institution, Arizona State University, have found significant concentrations of triclosan residue in rivers and streams. Bad news for all of us trying to avoid the Norovirus on the Colorado! Both the FDAand the EPA are revising their consumer statements in light of ongoing research. Industry representatives, of course, insist that their antibacterial products are safe. 

This debate is especially perplexing because it pits our concerns about infection and disease against fears of more insidious toxicity and pollution. Nobody wants to spread harmful pathogens, but will the products designed to kill them ultimately do more harm than good? Consumer scrutiny, coupled with that of government watchdog agencies, may provide part of the answer. Already, products are being advertised as “triclosan free,” just as earlier “BPA free” products (including backpacker-popular Nalgene water bottles) quickly appeared following negative reports about that ingredient. Some common sense is in order, too. Regular soap is known to kill disease- carrying germs. Equally effective biodegradable varieties are less harmful to watersheds. As the evidence continues to mount about triclosan and triclocarban, there is no reason why we can’t stay clean and keep our eye on the research also.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Image courtesy Flickr user Andrew Braithwaite

High Country News Classifieds