Sunday, August 24, 2008

Water Hazard

The NY Times ran a sneering article about how LA has finally got to face reality and use reclaimed water. My last water bill came with an insert with information about water reclamation. I wasn't alarmed, because I was already aware that 50% of my tap water comes from underground aquifers fed largely by treated sewage from several area sewage treatment plants. I even blogged about that in Walking My Watershed.

You know what really alarms me? Triclosan and the difficulty I have in buying soap without it. It seems like every soap and cleaner on the store shelves has been adding this chemical so that they, too, can claim to be anti-bacterial. In fact, a recent study showed that even most soaps that do not tout their anti-bacterial properties contain triclosan.

This is really bad for several reasons. Marla Cone, who recently departed from the LA Times, had long covered this developing environmental hazard. Read Threat Seen from Antibacterial Soap Chemicals. Since no one currently at the LAT appears to have the time to follow the story, I will put in my two cents.

Triclosan was an effective antibacterial agent used mainly in hospitals until a few years ago. Then it appeared in household products. Unlike chlorine and alcohol, which kill all bacteria, triclosan only affects susceptible bacteria. Thus, widespread use of triclosan had lead to bacterial resistance. That is very, very disturbing news for someone with my genetic problem.

Triclosan is only effective if it is in contact with the bacterial for a period of time much longer than the time it takes most people to wash their hands. Thus, we are dumping huge amounts of triclosan into the waste stream even though it doesn't kill any bacteria under ordinary usage.
About 75% of a potent bacteria-killing chemical that people flush down their drains survives treatment at sewage plants, and most of that ends up in sludge spread on farm fields, according to Johns Hopkins University research. Every year, it says, an estimated 200 tons of two compounds – triclocarban and triclosan – are applied to agricultural lands nationwide.
Biosolids are spread on farmland as fertilizer. That is not a bad practice in theory. Why landfill a nitrogen-rich resource when you can recycle it into food? But biosolids contain a whole chemical alphabet soup of things that humans use and ingest. Read also, Marla Cone's One big drug test: Analyzing a city’s sewage can put a number on its vices.

Suppose you don't have a BS in Chemistry and work at a lab with access to chemistry journals like me. You probably haven't been following the research by the Spanish research team of Marta Lores, Maria Llompart, Lucia Sanchez-Prado, Carmen Garcia-Jares and Rafael Cela. You can still read the abstracts for two eye-popping articles for free:
In a process they call photo solid-phase microextraction (photo-SPME), they dip fibers in water to coat them, then irradiate the fibers with UV light and study the byproducts. "Triclosan is rapidly photodegraded (70% of triclosan was degraded in 2 min); the most important novel aspect of this work is the conversion of triclosan to DCDD [dichlorodibenzo-p-dioxin] directly on the polydimethylsiloxane coating of the SPME fiber.

Yup, that antibacterial soap you are using is helping to introduce dioxin into your food, your soil, your rivers. (To be fair, photo-degradation of triclosan results in several chemicals, including DCDD.)

No wonder Kern county is suing to stop the spreading of LA's biosolids in their county. If they are successful, and Marla Cone's article said they likely will be, our biosolids will be trucked to Arizona instead. So maybe we will be spared from eating our own dioxin?

Maybe not.

Some portion of the triclosan remains in the treated water and is released into our streams, rivers and oceans. In my area, treated waste water is injected into the ground to prevent salt water incursion from the ocean into our underground aquifer. Over time, that water seeps into the aquifer; I am already drinking recycled water.

Is it a big deal to drink triclosan? Aren't we likely getting some from our dishes washed in triclosan-containing soaps? Or absorbing it through our skin when we wash with the stuff?

Grass is a fiber-like material repeatedly sprayed with water containing triclosan and then exposed to sunlight; will grass clippings contain dioxin? Will my home-grown veggies become coated with a triclosan and dioxin? Will that triclosan/dioxin build up in me the same way it has been shown to build up in earthworms?

Why are we poisoning ourselves and our planet for absolutely no good reason?

The media has been largely silent on this issue. Recall why the shows are called soap operas.

As if this wasn't enough to keep me up at night, my water district says that they are putting in place a new state of the art system that irradiates the treated wastewater with UV light. UV light is an effective bacteria killer. However, the UV treatment of water containing triclosan doesn't make me feel safer. (Isn't it ironic that the combination of two bacteria killers can be so hazardous?)

I am NOT saying we should avoid recycling water. People have been doing that forever. People have always lived downstream from someone else and reusing water cannot be avoided. In such an arid climate, and with so many people, we need to reuse our water.

The real issue is getting triclosan out of our waste stream now.

The EPA held a hearing in July 2008 to address this issue. I found this story from the enviro-nuts at the Fox News Network:
In comments filed today with the Environmental Protection Agency on its new risk assessment and evaluation of the widely used anti-bacterial chemical triclosan, found in a wide range of products including soaps, toothpastes and personal care products, plastics, paints and clothing, public interest health and environmental groups point to health effects, environmental contamination and wildlife impacts and call for consumer uses to be halted.

The comments, submitted by Beyond Pesticides, Food and Water Watch, Greenpeace US, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and dozens of public health and environmental groups from the U.S. and Canada, urge the agency to use its authority to cancel the non-medical uses of the antibacterial chemical triclosan, widely found in consumer products and shown to threaten health and the environment. Triclosan and its degradation products bioaccumulate in humans, is widely found in the nation's waterways, fish and aquatic organisms, and because of its proliferating uses, are linked to bacterial resistance, rendering triclosan and antibiotics ineffective for critical medical uses. The chemical and its degradates are also linked to endocrine disruption, cancer and dermal sensitization.

The non-medical uses of triclosan are frivolous and dangerous, creating serious direct health and environmental hazards and long-term health problems associated with the creation of resistant strains of bacteria, said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. The American Medical Association (AMA) is on record questioning the efficacy of triclosan in consumer products, raising the question of whether the consumer uses are necessary and are doing more harm than good. The coalition of groups commenting today, in addition to the hazards cited, criticizes EPA for not completing an analysis of the impact of triclosan on endangered species and other deficiencies in its review.

The EPA's public comment period for the reevaluation of triclosan, known as the reregistration eligibility decision (RED), closes today. The document releases EPA's risk assessment and its decision to allow triclosan's uses to continue and expand. EPA shares responsibility for regulating triclosan with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). EPA has jurisdiction over treated textiles, paints and plastics and FDA is responsible for soaps, toothpaste, deodorants and antiseptics. The RED, however, is intended to assess the potential adverse effects across all uses.

In separate comments today, water utilities commented that triclosan and its degradation products are not cleaned out of the water treatment process and end up in sewage sludge, often referred to as biosolids. Research shows that earthworms take in triclosan residues, as do fish and aquatic organisms. Concerns have also been raised about residues in drinking water.
So what did our EPA decide to do? They decided to ignore the advice of "dozens of public health and environmental groups from the U.S. and Canada" and their own scientists and allow the continued use of triclosan.

In a separate action, the EPA also decided to lower the value of a human life for use in their cost-benefit calculations. No explanation was given for why this action was taken.

It has been pointed out that we are conducting a large-scale biological experiment on ourselves by introducing triclosan into our environment. It kills beneficial microbes in the soil and has been shown to build up in the tissues of earthworms and other living creatures.


  1. Yeech, I am very much against anti-bacterial products, on the grounds that they are making it harder for hospitals to create sterile environments by possibly helping to create superbugs but this sounds like another good reason to avoid them.

    I'm doing a workshop next month to learn how to make my own soap from scratch - I'm so excited about it!

  2. Anonymous11:22

    When I took an engineering risk analysis class in college, we valued human life at $1M, so I guess it could be a lot worse.

  3. I'm with you on being anti-antibiotic in my hand soaps. I think the (expense) eco-friendly are antibiotic free. And I think Method might be, too? I should double check.

    And don't even get me started about the antibiotics we feed our farm animals!

  4. I don't use soap, I use mineral "soap" and deodorant from Nature Rich--better for me, better for the environment.

    Similar products can be found at Whole Foods.

  5. Anonymous21:13

    Nearly 6 years later, my state has banned triclosan in soaps. Starting in 2017, that is. Unless the manufacturers' lobby wins a way to avoid complying. Sigh.
    Thanks for the info. I remembered you'd written about triclosan, so searched your blog to reread your explaination.
    Best of luck to you in your new job and living arrangements.
    Cindy in MN

    1. The conversion of triclosan to dioxins has been replicated by multiple labs. I would like to see an international ban on non-clinical uses of triclosan.


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