Health News Digest

October 15, 2012

It’s Not Green To Be Pro-Bacteria


By  Michael D. Shaw

For many of us living in the First World, and in the present time, it is quite difficult to imagine the havoc wrought by bacterial infection. For those who think about this at all, they tend to focus on the so-called Black Death, which literally plagued Europe from 1347-1351. Scholars peg the number of deaths from this scourge at around 25 million, noting that the population of western Europe did not again reach its pre-1348 level until the beginning of the 16th century.

In his new book, entitled Pandemic: The Story of People vs. Germs,  best-selling author Paul Alexander examines the history of the deadly relationship between germs and people and how bad politics is eclipsing good science—even to include calls to ban triclosan, a widely-used antibacterial.

He notes that:

[In] triclosan’s almost 50-year history, no one has died or become seriously ill because of ingesting or coming into contact with the substance. But the war on triclosan will continue. There is too much money to be raised by environmental groups and politicians for it to stop on its own. Only when the agencies of the federal government are forced to make a final decision, one they have been putting off now for nearly four decades, will a resolution occur.

Eight presidents have come and gone since triclosan was invented—and for good reason too, to replace hexachlorophene, which did pose an easily established health risk to newborns—and the government has not arrived at a definitive decision on whether or not it is safe and effective.

The attacks against triclosan have an all-too-familiar ring to them. Foolishly-contrived lab studies are vastly inflated to suggest danger to humans; an assortment of fear entrepreneurial fund-raising groups do their best to scare consumers into sending in more donations; and the tired canard of “endocrine disruptor” is invoked yet again. The frighteningly real dangers of pathogens are either not mentioned, or are summarily dismissed.

Another tack is to condemn triclosan-based hand cleaners as being no more effective than normal soaps—a claim that is marginally true, but only if you scrub your hands with normal soap vigorously for two minutes. Doesn’t everyone?

According to Richard Sedlak—Executive Vice President, Technical & International Affairs—for the American Cleaning Institute, “Triclosan is one of the most thoroughly studied and researched ingredients over the past 40 years. Extensive regulatory and scientific reviews of triclosan by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as other regulatory bodies around the world, have found the uses of triclosan to be safe.”

Sedlak cited a 2011 review by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety. It found that the “use of triclosan at a maximum concentration of 0.3% in toothpastes, hand soaps, body soaps/shower gels and deodorant sticks is considered safe.” In addition, a 2012 preliminary screening assessment of triclosan by Health Canada and Environment Canada reiterated that triclosan-containing products are safe for consumers to use.

Lest we forget, plague bacterium Yersinia pestis was hardly the only problem facing our ancestors in those days before antibacterials. Countless people died from cholera, typhus, and a host of other infectious diseases. Indeed, it is unassailable that the greatest benefit of science to mankind was the introduction of chlorine to purify water—a process that started just over 100 years ago.

In light of the current uproar over triclosan though, one wonders how successful the chlorination efforts would have been, if this sort of regulatory overreach had existed at the time. Sadly enough, there is a true-life example of such idiocy, and it occurred in the early 1990s in Peru.

Chlorine kills the pathogens in water based on its strong oxidizing properties. Naturally, other aqueous organic matter will be oxidized, as well. Typical reaction products include chloroform and a variety of other trihalomethanes (THMs). As luck would have it, some of these compounds are either known or suspected carcinogens, although if they are present, usually exist in the range of low parts-per-billion. In 1979, our EPA promoted standards to control THMs.

Presumably, in an attempt to “out-EPA” the American agency, and no doubt, to prove their Green bona fides, officials in Peru decided to close down some of the water purification chlorinators located in Lima and a few other cities. After all, what could be worse than exposing their people to these evil carcinogens?

Here’s what could be—and actually was—far worse: The first epidemic of cholera to occur in the Western Hemisphere in nearly 100 years. The disease spread from Peru into several other South and Central American countries. By the end of 1992, 731,312 cases of cholera were logged, with 6,323 deaths. In Peru, alone, the death rate was 140 per million population.

As was pointed out a few years after the epidemic, taking EPA’s wild-eyed worst case scenario figures, and applying them to a lifetime of drinking water containing 100 ppb of THMs, the annual rate of cancer deaths in Peru would have increased by fewer than three deaths per million. Whoops. To this day, the Greenies still spin the Peru epidemic away from lack of chlorination.

But, bad politics has trumped good science before. Just ask the survivors of any of the millions of Africans who died from malaria as a direct result of the banning of DDT. There’s a reason why ecology is called mankind’s last fad.