What you need to know:
- Triclosan is also found in laundry detergents and softeners, cosmetics, shaving creams, hair conditioners, pesticides, plastics, chopping boards, and plastic furniture.
- According to the lobby, Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, toothpaste and soap manufacturers claim that triclocan continues to work for as long as 12 hours after use, exposing consumers to the chemical for much longer than the 20 seconds it takes to wash their hands or brush their teeth.
Did you take a shower this morning? Did you also brush your teeth? And are you a man who has, of late, noticed that something is not right about your masculinity?
If you answered yes to either or both of the first two questions, that lathering up and brushing of your teeth could be the reason you have been feeling a little blue lately.
German and Danish researchers believe they have finally identified an active ingredient in both soap and toothpaste that could be reducing the fertility of men by damaging their sperms’ ability to swim.
That ingredient is triclosan, a chemical created more than 40 years ago as a surgical scrub for hospitals and which has now been found to have the same effect as a group of chemicals called endocrine-disruptors, which have been blamed for the growing global headache of male infertility.
Endocrine refers to glands that secrete hormones or other products directly into the blood, and scientists warn that chemicals that disrupt that process are present in food, textiles, drugs, toys, and cosmetics.
Their findings corroborate a growing concern in the medical field that, as people try to get cleaner, they are either exposing themselves to greater chemical risk or weakening their immune systems.
The study that fingered triclosan for growing infertility, for instance, further indicated that these chemicals interfered with the coordinated sequence of fertilisation by causing changes in the way sperms swim, hindering their navigation towards the egg, and hampering their penetration of the egg’s protective coat.
“For the first time, we have shown a direct link between exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals from industrial products and adverse effects on human sperm function,’’ said Niels E. Skakkebaek, professor and leader of the Danish team.
But Nairobi obstetrician and gynaecologist John Ong’ech says that, although the study shows that exposure to this chemical could cause sperm abnormalities and lead to infertility, there is still a need for more expanded studies beyond the laboratory to establish the actual effect on man.
“There lies a risk that toxic components in the blood could get into the seminal fluid that carries the sperms, but this can only be established through ongoing studies,” says Dr Ong’ech, who is also the head of reproductive health at Kenyatta National Hospital.
The rather startling finding that soaps, hand washes, and toothpastes cause male infertility should be corroborated through a series of studies, he adds, in the same way that the effect of global warming and lifestyle change have been concluded to affect male fertility.
Triclosan is used in soaps and body washes for its anti-bacterial effect, but has also been found to alter hormone regulation in animal studies. Its effects on humans in this regard remain unclear, but currently the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agency is reviewing all the available evidence on this ingredient’s safety in consumer products following recent studies that merit further review.
The chemical is often the active ingredient in soaps that are marketed as antibacterial or antimicrobial, even though, in 2005, an FDA advisory panel said triclosan-laced soap was no better at preventing illness than regular soap-and-water combinations. In toothpaste, it is used to fight gingivitis.
Skin specialist E.N. Kamuri dismisses the use of antibacterial soaps on grounds that they are more effective than using ordinary soap, saying that this a marketing gimmick aimed at getting consumers to buy the products.
According to Dr Kamuri, there has been a proliferation of anti-bacterial agents in soaps, yet they are not demonstrably useful.
“The so-called antibacterial soaps have no scientifically proven benefits and could cause more harm than the intended benefits because they kill even the good bacteria, further exposing you to photo-sensitive dermatitis (a reaction to light by your skin),” Dr Kamuri, who is a consultant dermatologist, warns.
When you over-scrub your skin and use these antibacterials, it leads to exposure to other organisms such as fungi that cause other skin conditions that require treatment, warns Dr Kamuri, adding that the simplest way to keep germs and bacteria at bay is to scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds with regular soap and warm water.
Triclosan is also found in laundry detergents and softeners, cosmetics, shaving creams, hair conditioners, pesticides, plastics, chopping boards, and plastic furniture.
In a paper titled Antibacterial Household Products: Cause for Concern, American microbiologist Stuart Levy warns against the inclusion of antibacterial chemicals in soaps, saying their use is similar to the misuse of antibiotics. He warns that using products at home that contain these chemicals is akin is to drug abuse as, for a long time, antibacterials have been restricted to use in sensitive environments like hospitals.
“The public is being bombarded with ads for cleansers, soaps, toothbrushes, dishwashing detergents, and hand lotions, all containing antibacterial agents. Likewise, we hear about ‘superbugs’ and deadly viruses. Germs have become the buzzword for a danger people want to eliminate from their surroundings,” Dr Levy notes in his paper.
He notes a correlation between what he calls “too much hygiene” and increased allergies, especially in persons who are overly protective against micro-organisms. As such, children who grow up on farms tend to have fewer allergies than their counterparts in these over-sanitised environments.
“We exist in a bacterial world, not bacteria in ours. Unfortunately, we believe that we can rid ourselves of bacteria when, in fact, we cannot. Instead, we should ‘make peace’ with them,” he says.
And, although we need to control pathogens when they cause disease, we do not have to engage in a full-fledged “war” against the microbial world.
“We must think not just in terms of resistance, but also in terms of the changes in the microbial ecology of our infants and our homes,” advises Dr Levy.
Graham Rook of the University College, London, has likened the immune system to the brain because you have to exercise it — that is, expose it to the right antigenic information so that it matures correctly.
According to the lobby, Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, toothpaste and soap manufacturers claim that triclocan continues to work for as long as 12 hours after use, exposing consumers to the chemical for much longer than the 20 seconds it takes to wash their hands or brush their teeth.
In December last year, the American agency, FDA, challenged antibacterial soap manufacturers to prove that their products were more effective than plain soap and water in preventing illness and the spread of infection. The agency further required them to ascertain that their products were safe for long-term use.
“Some data suggest that long-term exposure to certain active ingredients used in antibacterial products — for example, triclosan (liquid soaps) and triclocarban (bar soaps) — could pose health risks, such as bacterial resistance or hormonal effects,” reads part of a statement signed by FDA official Sandra Kweder.
“Our goal is, if a company is making a claim that something is antibacterial and in this case promoting the concept that consumers who use these products can prevent the spread of germs, then there ought to be data behind that.”
Contacted for comment on whether there will be legislation regarding the use of triclosan in local products, the Pharmacy and Poisons Board of Kenya referred us to the Kenya Bureau of Standards, explaining that it does not regulate the content of soaps, toothpaste, and hand washes because they are not categorised as drugs. However, the Kenya Bureau of Standards remained silent on the subject.