June 12 2013

Should Moms be Afraid to Wash their Hands?

Angela Logomasini

I came across a comment on Babycenter.com where one expectant mom asks:  “How should I wash my hands?”  Her question is prompted by one of the latest green scares, this one about anti-bacterial soap, which uses the chemical triclosan.  She explains:

I just heard that triclosan could cause problems during pregnancy, resulting in birth defects. (The study in question was from 2010 and is based on pregnant sheep.)

The FDA is looking into this issue.  In the meantime, I called my OB nurse, and she said that she had never heard of triclosan and that soap was not one of the items that they warned people about.  She was going to check with a doctor, but I haven't heard back, and it is after business hours for them now.

So, has anyone dealt with the triclosan issue?  Has anyone's doctor said anything about this?

My advice: wash your hands and don’t worry about it!  Washing your hands with soaps that contain triclosan or other chemicals will do more good than any alleged harm activists can dream up.

First, chemical exposures from consumer products are generally too low to have any significant impacts. Measuring such negligible risks is akin to looking for needle in a field of haystacks. Government researchers can dig and dig, yet never find anything, nor can they prove a chemical is 100 percent safe since nothing is. So they continue with no end in sight.

For example, while triclosan has been used pretty widely for more than 40 years, there’s no hard evidence of triclosan-caused cancers or “superbugs.” The best greens can offer are allegations based on studies that suggest links between the chemical and cancer or other health effects in rodents dosed large amounts. The same is true for naturally occurring chemicals in broccoli, coffee, pickles, and more. We don’t need an FDA review of these foods to know they are safe to eat and that these rodent studies are not particularly relevant to human health risks from trace chemicals.

Still it may sound scary that the federal government has not completed its safety assessment. Yet the fact that bureaucrats rarely move quickly isn’t shocking at all. And there are many reasons why chemical reviews in particular take a long time, none of which have to do with safety.

In addition to the impossible task—and futility—of trying to quantify negligible risks, there’s little incentive for government agencies to issue any “final” conclusions. The researchers and program administrators develop entire careers around these programs. Each year, FDA lobbyists head to Capitol Hill asking for money to ensure that program heads, their employees, research partners, and the lobbyists of course, can continue to collect paychecks, health benefits, and, for some eventually, government pensions.  If the risk was substantial, they would not be able to drag their feet.

Privately conducted research has already provided significant assurance that triclosan is unlikely to pose health risks (see the numerous studies posted on this industry website) and is unlikely to promote anti-bacterial resistance. This research is available without lawsuits, myriad “stakeholder” meetings, comment periods, and other political delays.

Now expectant moms should be concerned about the possibility of getting sick during pregnancy, particularly since they are more susceptible to illnesses. Getting sick during pregnancy not only makes mom less comfortable, high fever and dehydration are challenges for the baby. Triclosan can help reduce the risks associated with bacterial related illnesses, which includes some common sinus and respiratory illnesses. However, any hype that deters hand washing in general could also increase viral problems as well. Hand washing is one of our best defenses against getting sick and we should be able to do that without worry about phantom risks related to insignificant trace chemicals found in soap.

So if anything, anti-bacterial soaps are much more likely to benefit health during pregnancy than otherwise.  But you will never get that perspective from activists who would rather instill fear than provide a balanced assessment.

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