Blog: FDA responsible for real scandal

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Pam Linn

With all the chatter about misconduct by the IRS, Justice and State departments, and claims of mismanagement at the highest levels of government, it’s easy to overlook some real scandals that affect our health and safety everyday. 

For instance: the FDA has been punting (for more than four decades) regulation of a common chemical, triclosan, used in antibacterial soaps and scrubs and found in about 75 percent of the nation’s households. 

Finally, the FDA has announced plans for review of the chemical’s safety and efficacy this year. The ruling, if it ever appears, may determine the chemical’s continued use in consumer products. It may also have serious implications for a $1 billion industry that produces everything from personal care products to toys. 

U.S. regulators have never formally approved triclosan, except in 1997 for use in Colgate Total toothpaste to control gingivitis. 

A little history is needed. 

In the early 1970s, triclosan was routinely used in hospitals as a surgical scrub and to coat the surfaces of catheters, stitches and surgical instruments. At the time it was thought to be safer than hexachlorophene, which caused serious allergic reactions in some people and was ultimately banned in household products. 

In 1972, Congress passed a law requiring the FDA to set guidelines for dozens of antibacterial chemicals in soaps and other products sold over the counter. In 1978, the agency set tentative guidelines, stating triclosan is “not generally recognized as safe and effective,” claiming there was not enough scientific research on the chemical. 

In 1990, triclostan was beginning to appear in consumer goods, including toys and cutting boards, as mothers sought to protect their children from every possible source of infection. 

However, a decade later, wholesale use of antibiotics was being discouraged among physicians who prescribed them for viral infections, and because it contributed to the proliferation of drug-resistant germs or Superbugs. 

By 2009, the EPA and several universities were conducting triclostan studies on animals that showed hormone disruption and muscle weakening implicated in heart failure. 

Within a year, some leading medical societies and hospitals abandoned use of the chemical. Kaiser Permanente pulled it from its 37 hospitals and switched to traditional soaps and alcohol-based hand sanitizers. 

The Endocrine Society found that triclosan “alters levels of thyroid and reproductive hormones.” Still, it proliferated in the marketplace. 

In 2010, the Natural Resources Defense Counsel brought a lawsuit against FDA that was at first tossed out by a lower court but ultimately reinstated in March by a federal appeals court, which ruled the suit could go forward. The three-judge panel ruled NRDC had proved triclosan was dangerous. 

Also in 2010, the EU banned triclosan from products that come into contact with food. This would apply to soaps in hand sanitizers used in kitchens after handling raw chicken and meat. 

So can we expect the FDA to do its job and set regulation of triclosan and other dangerous chemicals based on scientific studies? Or will the agency cave to industry pressure and issue some innocuous warning with no consequences, as it did with a watered-down version of a warning against the ubiquitous use of antibiotics in agriculture? 

The media, with the exception of Associated Press reports in early May, seem to think these issues aren’t sexy enough for coverage; not when the GOP can label mistakes or even controversy as “scandals.” 

But there are things we as consumers can do. Even if the FDA, the EPA, the USDA and other agencies are cowed by industry power, individuals can be heard. Lesson 1: Just don’t buy it. 

For starters, tell your pharmacist or grocer that you won’t buy products containing triclosan. Ask them to stock standard bar soap and alcohol-based hand sanitizers for use in the car or outdoors. Write to Johnson & Johnson thanking them for removing triclosan from baby products and promising to discontinue its use in adult products by 2015. Maybe they could move the date up a little. 

When scientists and environmental groups raise concerns about products dangerous to human health, listen to or read what they say. And then act on that information. Oh, it would also be great to email your representative in Congress asking for a halt to onerous budget cuts that prevent or slow down FDA and other agencies whose mission is to keep us well.