An article was released online Monday in Environmental Health Perspectives which surprised me. For the last five or six years I’ve been enthusiastically extolling the evils of triclosan in the environment, but the connection with human immune dysfunction really caught me by surprise, most likely because I’m a microbiologist (this is probably not news to all you toxicologists out there). As someone who suffers both indoor and outdoor allergies (including hayfever) as well as allergy-induced asthma, it’s no small thing for the authors to be able to say with such a level of confidence…
“… higher levels of triclosan were associated with greater odds of having been diagnosed with allergies or hayfever (p<0.01).” Clayton, et al., 2010.
The mechanism of impact on the human immune system isn’t clear yet, but in reading the article I discovered that triclosan has been associated with not only endocrine disruption, but also central nervous system effects and thyroid problems for several years now.
This knowledge becomes particularly disturbing when you consider the fact that since it’s creation in the 1960’s, triclosan (also known by its more descriptive chemical name: 2,4,4’-trichloro-2’-hydroxydiphenyl ether) has been added to countless consumer products as an antimicrobial and preservative, including but certainly not limited to: hand soaps, laundry detergents, toothpastes, wound disinfection solutions, deodorants, facial tissues, plastic kitchen utensils, medical devices, and toys.
If a product’s label says “Antimicrobial” you can bet it contains triclosan or a triclosan derivative. Do a quick literature search and you’ll find we’re discovering new uses for it every month, incorporating it into plastics and personal care products of all kinds. Consequently, triclosan and its derivatives are now found in the urine and tissues of over 75% of all Americans, and in soils, sediments, and waterways all over the world.
Enter, environmental microbial populations.
What you might be thinking is that since triclosan is added to things for its antimicrobial properties, it must be wiping out hordes of bacteria and fungi, reducing their numbers worldwide… well, not exactly.
Some bacteria are naturally resistant to triclosan, like certain Pseudomonas species, while in others it actually causes mutagenesis (directed mutations) of their already existing resistance factors. What that means, is that bacteria have already developed a way to resist or survive a number of toxins, like heavy metals or salts, and when they are exposed to triclosan, their resistance factors actually adjust to treat triclosan in the same manner.
A great example would be common bacterial efflux pumps; these are mechanisms within the cellular membrane designed to “pump” a specific toxin right back out of the cell, where it can’t hurt the bacteria. When a bacterium is exposed to triclosan, these pumps go into over-drive and begin to pump out anything that remotely resembles an antimicrobial or antibiotic.
There could hardly be a better use for the old adage, “What doesn’t kill us, make us stronger.”
This type of triclosan-induced antimicrobial resistance has been proven in model species like E. coli, Salmonella enterica, Staphylococcus aureus, and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, but to date it’s been uncertain if these same effects are true of environmental species (common soil and water bacteria). Pycke, et al.(2010) set out to answer that question and their work was published in a recent article in Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
I guess the good news from their work would be that the species of environmental bacteria the authors tested (Rhodospirillum rubrum) was fairly sensitive to triclosan, and the concentrations needed to inhibit its growth and even kill this bacteria were similar to some of the most sensitive species that have been tested to date.
What this means to you: when you use an antibacterial soap to wash your hands, you’re probably killing off 90% of these types of bacteria on in your hands, i.e. they are very susceptible to high concentrations.
The not so good news is that under low-levels of triclosan exposure, the very same efflux mechanisms that I described above were able to confer resistance to these bacteria, and not just to triclosan, but also to a wide range of antibiotics including tetracycline, chloramphenicol, fluroquinolones, and others.
What this means to you: after you wash your hands with antibacterial soap, and that triclosan is diluted in water and washed out into your septic or local waste-water treatment plant, the environmental bacteria exposed to lower levels of triclosan are not killed, but essentially “turn on” their efflux pumps and become resistant to some of the most common antibiotics in use.
We used to think that a bacterium had to first be exposed to a specific antibiotic in order to become resistant to it (or at least one of his pals was exposed and passed on the genetic resistance); now we know that our own waste-streams, laden with chronic levels of the very antimicrobial products our culture clings to, are fostering even greater levels of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the environment.
To sum up
Two reasons not to buy or use products with antimicrobial chemicals like triclosan or triclosan derivatives:
1.) Increased incidence of hayfever, allergies, and immune dysfunction;
2.) Decimation of the human race by antibiotic resistant diseases. (ok, maybe that’s a little overblown, but you get the idea)
If the one doesn’t make you think twice, surely the other will.
Clayton, E., Todd, M., Dowd, J., & Aiello, A. (2010). The Impact of Bisphenol A and Triclosan on Immune Parameters in the US Population, NHANES 2003-2006 Environmental Health Perspectives DOI: 10.1289/ehp.1002883
Pycke, B., Crabbe, A., Verstraete, W., & Leys, N. (2010). Characterization of Triclosan-Resistant Mutants Reveals Multiple Antimicrobial Resistance Mechanisms in Rhodospirillum rubrum S1H Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 76 (10), 3116-3123 DOI: 10.1128/AEM.02757-09