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The Dangers of Antibacterial Soap Use for Pregnant Women & Fetuses

by Katlyn Joy | August 13, 2014 12:00 AM
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We want to keep ourselves and our families free of germs and illness. Manufacturers know this and have developed and marketed a slew of antibacterial products to us. From antibacterial soap, to wipes and sprays, we are a hygiene-nation.

But the backlash from that desire to be sanitary and germ-free may be exposing us to far greater dangers.

In December 2013, the Food and Drug Administration took action for manufacturers to demonstrate that antibacterial products are more effective than plain soap and water at defending users from germs, and also that they are safe.

The reason is that millions of consumers regularly use these products in their homes, schools, and workplaces yet mounting research has found no evidence they are better at protecting us than regular soap. More concerning, research indicates chemicals commonly contained in these products may do more harm than good, possibly affecting hormones or building bacterial resistance.

Triclosan and triclocarban are the two most commonly used ingredients in antibacterial products, and may also be found in products labeled "deodorant."

The latest warnings are sounding from the August 2014 annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. A new study out of Arizona State University links the chemicals commonly found in everyday products to shorter newborn length. They think this could lead to a small individual difference, but on a very large scale. More concerning is the other possible effects from regular exposure to these products.

We looked at the exposure of pregnant women and their fetuses to triclosan and triclocarban, two of the most commonly used germ-killers in soaps and other everyday products," says Benny Pycke, Ph.D. and lead contributor of the study. "We found triclosan in all of the urine samples from the pregnant women that we screened. We also detected it in about half of the umbilical cord blood samples we took, which means it transfers to fetuses. Triclocarban was also in many of the samples."

According to Pycke, this is cause for alarm since evidence is stacking up showing these chemicals can cause reproductive and developmental problems in animals and possibly humans. It's also thought they may be contributing to antibiotic resistance, a rapidly growing problem today.

The chemicals are found in over 2000 products ranging from soaps, body washes, toothpastes and detergents to even school supplies and toys. So even though the compounds are easily flushed from the human system, we are continually exposed to them.

"If you cut off the source of exposure, eventually triclosan and triclocarban would quickly be diluted out, but the truth is that we have universal use of these chemicals, and therefore also universal exposure," says Rolf Halden, Ph.D., a lead researcher of the Arizona State study.

The chemical linked to shorter newborn lengths is butyl paraben, and is commonly found in cosmetics.

A 2010 University of Florida study found the chemical triclosan, another common ingredient in antibacterial soaps, interferes with the action of an enzyme involved in reproductive processes. The enzyme, called estrogen sulfotransferase, helps metabolize estrogen and move it into the placenta to reach the baby during pregnancy. Estrogen in the placenta helps regulate hormones in the growing baby, as well as with the fetus' brain development.

Minnesota has become the first state to take direct action against these potentially dangerous, yet seemingly ubiquitous, chemicals. In 2017 the chemical triclosan will be banned from personal hygiene products in that state.

Pregnant women in particular are urged to avoid antibacterial soaps, and instead use plain old soap and water. If you need to wash your hands and soap isn't available, your next best choice is a hand sanitizer made with at least 60 percent alcohol.

Both the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency are reviewing these products and chemicals closely right now, to determine whether they will be taking stronger action to protect the public from these chemicals and their potential damage.


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