A high-profile move this week by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should have come as a shock to consumers who have long used “antibacterial” soaps, lotions and other products to ward off illness. Despite widespread use since the late 1970s, a top FDA official said bluntly on Monday that their added value in fighting infection is unproven as questions mount about potential risks.

“While use of antibacterial soaps and body washes has become part of many consumers’ routines, we at the FDA have not been provided with data to demonstrate that these products are any more effective at preventing people from getting sick than washing with plain soap and water,’’ said Dr. Sandra Kweder, deputy director in the FDA’s office for new drugs. “Because of consumers’ high exposure to these products and the ingredients in them, we at the FDA believe there should be a clearly demonstrated benefit from using antibacterial soaps to balance out any particular or potential risk.’’

Scientists and leading public health officials have urged the agency for years to scrutinize products that commonly contain the chemical triclosan as the active ingredient. Still, the FDA’s proposed regulatory measure to require manufacturers to prove their products work and are safe is welcome even if long overdue. If manufacturers can’t do so, they could be required to reformulate or relabel their products.

The FDA’s high-profile initiative should not only help raise awareness about the dubious value for consumers, it will put a stronger spotlight on the growing concerns about triclosan’s health and environmental risks.

Kweder this week mentioned emerging research from animal studies suggesting that daily exposure could have “effects on estrogen, testosterone and thyroid hormone.” There are also serious concerns that widespread use of triclosan could increase bacterial resistance to antibiotic medications — a key reason that infectious-disease experts such as former Minnesota state epidemiologist Mike Osterholm is among those sounding an alarm.

A University of Minnesota-led study, one funded by state lottery dollars, has also heightened national concerns that rising levels of dioxins in waterways may be linked to triclosan’s consumer use. Much of the chemical gets washed down the drain. Triclosan exposed to sunlight may generate these toxic byproducts.

Minnesota, with its treasured lakes and rivers and world-class health care expertise, should be at the forefront of safeguarding public health and water quality. While the FDA seems to poised to act, the agency’s long history of foot-dragging on this issue and the lobbying might of the soap industry engenders skepticism.

Sensible legislation to limit triclosan in Minnesota last spring ran into the Big Soap lobbying buzz saw and failed to pass. Gov. Mark Dayton’s administration took the responsible step, however, of ordering state government to stop buying products with triclosan.

While that will cut the amount going down the state’s drains each year, Minnesota lawmakers need to try again in 2014. The public health and water quality concerns are too important to simply hope for the best that federal officials will take action at some point.

Fortunately, the FDA’s move has re-energized state lawmakers and environmental advocates. Osterholm’s involvement, which underscores public health professionals’ rising concerns about triclosan, could also be a game-changer.

The dynamic Osterholm is the perfect antidote to soap industry lobbyists. He quickly undercuts studies often cited by the industry about triclosan’s germ-killing benefits. “It’s not whether you can kill a few more bacteria that’s the issue,’’ Osterholm said. “The issue is with whether you can kill sufficient numbers of them to have a differential impact on disease transmission.’’

A number of manufacturers have already started removing triclosan from consumer products. Minnesota shouldn’t wait for the feds to take action or for less responsible manufacturers to step up. “It’s time to really move on this,” said Osterholm, noting that infectious-disease experts would be fighting for triclosan if it was a vital public health safeguard. “Let’s stop this sooner than later.”