FDA Finally Reviewing Controversial Ingredient In Soap After 40 Years Of Procrastination

(Credit: Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

In 1972, Congress passed a law requiring the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set guidelines for anti-bacterial chemicals commonly used in soap. In a tentative draft published in 1978, the FDA identified one such chemical, triclosan, as potentially dangerous. Yet 35 years later, the FDA still has not finalized those guidelines, and triclosan has become a common ingredient in many soaps, toothpaste, mouthwashes, household cleaners, and toys.

Now, the FDA plans to complete its long-delayed review to determine whether or not triclosan is safe. Last year, after missing its spring 2011 deadline, the agency promised to complete the review in winter 2012. It then pushed it back to February 2013. Finally, after a federal court ordered the FDA to complete the review, the agency has set a new target release for later this year. During the decades of delay, evidence of triclosan’s potentially serious health risks has piled up.

In multiple independent studies, triclosan has been shown to alter hormone regulation, increase risks of infertility, and impair muscle function in humans and animals at the cellular level. Worrying concentrations of the chemical have also appeared in breast milk and in fish near wastewater treatment plants. Moreover, the FDA itself says triclosan contributes no added benefits to conventional soap.

As the FDA drags its feet on releasing the review, some companies are taking the initiative to start phasing out the controversial chemical. Kaiser Permanente pulled triclosan soaps from its 37 hospitals, while Johnson & Johnson has committed to removing triclosan from all its products by the end of 2015. The Environmental Protection Agency is also jump-starting their six-year review of triclosan’s use as a pesticide and preservative by a decade. Once these reviews are complete, companies may have to post warnings, reduce concentrations, or eliminate the chemical entirely.