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Lake Winona is in the foreground with the Mississippi River in the background.

M.K. Smith, Star Tribune

SOAP ADVICE


The Minnesota Department of Health recommends buying soap without triclosan. The state agency's Web page advises consumers on which soap is best to buy, especially for those concerned about preventing illness.

Down the drain and into our lakes

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD
  • Star Tribune
  • February 1, 2013 - 7:53 PM

A landmark study led by Minnesota scientists and funded by Minnesota lottery dollars has sounded a new and serious environmental alarm about the widespread use of triclosan, an antibacterial agent that winds up in waterways after consumers rinse off the soap and myriad other products it's in.

With federal officials' inexcusable dallying on new regulations for triclosan's use, Minnesota lawmakers have an obligation to spotlight and explore the study's key finding: increased levels of this potentially toxic contaminant in some Minnesota lakes.

This has national, even global, water quality implications, which is why a high-profile legislative hearing is needed at minimum. The research, led by respected scientists from the University of Minnesota and the Science Museum of Minnesota, offers some of the most compelling evidence to date that triclosan is being released into the environment and that it's linked to rising consumer use. The study also heightens concerns that dioxins, which may have toxic environmental effects, may be created when triclosan goes through chlorination-based wastewater treatment.

The American Cleaning Institute, an industry trade group, has vigorously challenged the research, issuing a statement last month that sarcastically commended researchers for finding "vanishingly low levels of chemicals in the environment." The group also argued that triclosan is one of the most researched chemicals used in consumer products and that it provides a "key public health benefit" as a germ killer.

The Minnesota study, which appeared recently in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, adds an overdue environmental dimension to the simmering debate over triclosan's safety and effectiveness. Triclosan can be found in soap, body wash, cosmetics, clothing and plastics. Some studies in animals suggest that triclosan exposure affects hormone regulation. There are also concerns that triclosan's widespread use may increase the risk of "superbugs" -- bacteria that can't be treated with current antibiotics.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says triclosan "is not currently known to be hazardous to humans," the agency's information page is anything but a glowing testament for its use. The agency makes clear that it's engaged in a "scientific and regulatory review" of triclosan. In addition, it states that there's no evidence that soap containing triclosan is better than regular soap and water at preventing infection, though adding triclosan to toothpaste boosts effectiveness in fighting gum disease.

The FDA was expected to release the results of this "scientific and regulatory" review in 2011. Then, 2012. On Wednesday, an FDA spokeswoman declined to provide a date for its release. The delay adds to the list of consumer protection issues-- the Food Safety Modernization Act, conflict-of-interest disclosures for the medical industry -- that the Obama administration was disturbingly slow to act on before the 2012 election.

Minnesota legislators need to get involved because the study's implications are environmental and financial. A historic effort is underway to clean up Lake Pepin, which involves reducing tributary pollution in its vast watershed. Minnesotans also made a massive investment in water quality when they approved the Legacy Amendment sales tax in 2008, creating long-term funding to protect the state's treasured waters.

The new study, which was funded by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, raises serious questions about whether expensive efforts to protect the state's lakes and rivers are addressing all of the contaminants threatening them. Minnesotans deserve to know that their environmental investment is being used effectively.

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An editorial of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis.

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