What do you do when your government acknowledges that a common chemical is toxic, then falls silent while companies keep pushing the stuff on the public and pumping it into the Great Lakes?
It's been two years since Environment Canada and Health Canada released their "preliminary" assessment of the notorious antibacterial villain triclosan. Still nary a peep from the feds on an action plan for even a voluntary phase-out. The Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) says it's time the feds "step up" and impose a ban.
To amass scientifically rigorous dirt on both triclosan and its common replacement (triclocarban) in a new report, CELA turned to a tool used by big biz and government - a chemical hazard assessor known as GreenScreen. Hewlett-Packard, Nike, Staples and the state of Maine have all turned to that tool to dig up the latest science on which chems are safe and which should be pulled from production in a hurry.
According to GreenScreen, triclosan, present in more than 1,600 consumer products from toothpaste to yoga mats, is classified as a "Benchmark 1" toxin: a chemical of the highest concern. Triclocarban, found in antibacterial products like Dial hand soap as well as Soft & Dri and Rightguard deodorants, is a "Benchmark 2," with very high aquatic toxicity.
"What's particularly alarming," says CELA's Fe de Leon, "is the range of impacts these chemicals are having - from damaging aquatic ecosystems, including the Great Lakes, to interfering with human endocrine systems."
Health Canada has already slapped triclosan on its hot list of restricted ingredients, capping its max usage in most cosmetic products at 0.3 per cent. Sounds low, but the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety has updated its stance, warning that 0.3 per cent isn't safe after all, thanks to the sheer volumes of triclosan products on shelves that end up in our bodies and downstream. To date, triclosan's been found in 97 per cent of breast milk samples and nearly 90 per cent of the Great Lakes' surface water samples.
Researchers warn that when triclosan mixes with chlorine and sunlight in lakes and rivers, it can create carcinogenic dioxins, putting the Great Lakes ecosystem at risk. Not good when those lakes hold 20 per cent of the world's fresh water.
CELA's report warns that those dioxins may literally be going up in smoke as communities turn to incineration to dispose of triclosan-laced sewage sludge, the way Toronto's been doing for decades at the old Highland Creek Treatment Plant in Scarborough.
De Leon says the whole triclosan mess only reflects the feds' "siloed" approach to regulating toxins. Health Canada says triclosan is safe for humans despite evidence of hormone disruption and in vitro research linking it to antibiotic resistance, while Enviro Canada considers it highly damaging to the environment. Consumers are left decoding mixed messages.
Health Canada acknowledges that soap and water do at least as good a job of cleaning as antibacterial products, so there's no reason HC should still be dragging its feet on phasing these toxins out of consumer products. Well, besides kowtowing to industry. Though even major brands like Procter and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson and most recently Avon have announced plans to oust triclosan.
At this point, any company still using triclosan or triclocarban (e.g., Dial maker Henkel) is holding onto what Rolf Halden, an environmental engineer and Arizona State University-based expert on triclosan, calls "failed chemistry" - a type of chemistry "known to be toxic, non-biodegradeable, non-green, non-sustainable" with "a heavy toll" on people and the planet.
Bev Thorpe of Clean Production Action, the host org for GreenScreen, adds that it's time for regulators and companies "to stop the toxic treadmill."