The Dysfunctional Politics of Hand Soap

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Recently, students at the University of Texas rallied to ban a product they deemed a serious threat to their collective health. Environmental groups have dedicated resources to doing the same thing nationwide. And Congress is involved, holding briefings about this product's dangers to our society. What scourge am I referring to? Automatic weapons, radioactive gas, or a deadly invasive species? Nope. The culprit: antibacterial hand soap.

After becoming aware of this controversy, I decided to investigate how something as seemingly beneficial to society as antibacterial hand soap became so political. And when did we, as a society, become more concerned about the germ-killers than the germs themselves?

The reason that hand soap is at the center of a controversy is because of an ingredient in antibacterial products named triclosan.

Scientists created triclosan in the late 1960s. It is a white, finely powdered organic substance that has a chlorinated odor that is pungent and sweet. In the 1970s, the FDA deemed triclosan safe for human use. Studies showed it was especially potent at treating oral diseases like gingivitis. It also helped combat the spread of bacteria in health care settings. In fact, it is currently in widespread use in hospital settings around the world.

But the FDA remained concerned about its effectiveness, so the agency would not issue a final ruling, even though it believed it was safe enough to be used by millions of Americans every day. FDA said it wanted to review documentation produced by industry and public sources.

Over the next 16 years, documentation was submitted. Nothing happened. At last, in 1994, the FDA made a move. Sort of. Unable to reach a decision, it deemed there was “insufficient data to make a determination.” Today, the FDA is still looking at the data and has promised an update in the near future.

If the government has set as a priority eliminating confusion around the safety and effectiveness of triclosan, it isn’t doing a good job. Complicating the matter is the EPA, which has jurisdiction over triclosan’s use in non-healthcare related products, like kitchen knives and cutting boards. They classify triclosan as a pesticide because it kills germs and germs are, according to the EPA at least, “pests.” It was deemed to be safe, yet EPA’s decidedly unusual classification system -- calling triclosan a pesticide -- does not inspire confidence in the chemical's safety.

Why the government has failed to make conclusive determinations on triclosan is hard to say. Congress has tried to get resolution — to no avail. In 2010, Congressman Markey wrote to the FDA demanding to know the agency’s plans “to finalize its regulation of over-the-counter topical antiseptic drug products…which were first proposed a startling 37 years ago.” He added: “The pace of the activity on the part of the FDA is especially perplexing in light of advances in science.” Still, no definitive action by the agency.

But the FDA and EPA obviously think triclosan is safe enough for widespread use, or it wouldn’t have allowed it to be utilized in a whole range of products now for decades. However, the unwillingness by the agencies to do their jobs has created a vacuum — one in which opponents of the substance have stepped in and created fear around the product.

In my new e-book Pandemic: The Story of Germs vs. People, I note that the disease that has perhaps killed more people than anyone in history, the plague, is caused by a bacteria — and is still active to this day. According to the World Health Organization, as of 2002, infectious diseases accounted for 25 percent of all deaths globally. Obviously, germs haven’t gone away.

Antibacterial products are as important today as they have ever been. Yet because of the inability of the government to take definitive action, the fate of one substance — triclosan — hangs in the balance. And not even Congress seems to be able to make the FDA or the EPA resolve the issue.

On its website, the FDA has promised to review all the science about triclosan and publish its findings in the winter of 2012. But I will go ahead and make this prediction now: FDA will again fail to make a definitive determination.

Why is the FDA unwilling to come clean on triclosan? My guess is because even though they know it is safe, if they say so, it will anger the environmental groups who have spent years saying triclosan is dangerous. So rather than drawing the ire of their ideological allies on the political Left, they will continue to review the science and monitor the situation. So no need to run to your bathroom to throw out your hand soap, just don't look for it in bathroom at the University of Texas.

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