Published October 08. 2013 4:00AM
As society has learned repeatedly in the past, what it doesn't know or properly evaluate can hurt us. DDT proved highly effective in reducing mosquitoes, but it took time to discover it was also thinning bird eggshells and endangering bird species. Asbestos was a great flame-resistant insulator, but unfortunately its fibrous material, embedded in the lungs, sickened and eventually killed people.
For decades, until the evidence of the dangers of cigarette smoking became overwhelming, doctors were used in advertising to not only promote the notion smoking was healthy, but to recommend it to mitigate some maladies, such as throat irritation.
These lessons learned, the American public should take seriously concerns that medicines, health and cleaning products meant to make our lives better and easier are potentially causing unintended harm to our environment.
When people clean their sinks, wash their hands or brush their teeth, chemicals from these products are washed down the drain. Additionally, drugs not fully metabolized into the body can pass through in urine. These "emerging contaminants" can move through municipal wastewater treatment plants and empty into waterways.
In an in-depth examination of the issue in the Oct. 6 edition of The Day - "Research: Fight against bacteria is harming environment, humans" - health and environmental reporter Judy Benson provides ample evidence why policy makers need to more aggressively act. Readers can view the story and accompanying photo and video coverage on www.theday.com.
Policy action should focus on supporting increased research to better assess the chemicals and compounds that enter the nation's waterways and their environmental impact. Based on the best research, upgrades may be necessary at sewage treatment plants to remove compounds of concern.
As part of the research, The Day employed the services of scientists to collect effluent samples from wastewater treatment plants in Norwich, New London, Groton City and Groton Town. Tellingly, the only sample in which none of the 11 compounds tested for were found was taken from the plant with the most recent upgrade - Groton Town.
A troubling aside was the refusal by officials at the Montville wastewater treatment plant to allow The Day to take a sample, concerned the results could lead to costly upgrades. Such a head-in-the-sand mentality is not appropriate for a facility providing a public service.
Most alarming was Ms. Benson's reporting on the widespread use of the chemical triclosan and its close associate, triclocarban. The bacteria-killing triclosan is found in deodorants, toothpaste, hand sanitizers and soap; manufacturers also treat numerous products with it - including sports equipment, yoga mats, socks and underwear.
Its introduction into the environment raises numerous concerns. Dana Kolpin, a senior research hydrologist and team leader for the U.S. Geological Survey's Contaminants of Emerging Concern Project, has studied the issue for 15 years. She pointed to research suggesting widespread use of triclosan is fueling the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotic treatment. Triclosan degrades in the environment into a "dioxin-like compound."
Introduced into wastewater treatment plants, triclosan can interfere with the good bacteria necessary to the sewage treatment process.
Animal analysis has found that the compound can interfere with normal hormonal processes, with indications the same may be true in humans.
If this was some indispensable compound needed to protect the public health, a cost/benefit analysis might be in order, weighing environmental and health concerns against triclosan's benefits. But the Food and Drug Administration reports no "evidence that the triclosan provides an extra benefit to health. At this time, the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water."
As Mae Wu, an attorney with the Natural Resources Council summarized, "This is a stupid use of a toxic chemical."
Connecticut should give serious consideration to following Minnesota's lead and prohibit state agencies from purchasing triclosan-containing products. This would be a largely symbolic, but still significant action.
Some major personal hygiene companies, including Johnson & Johnson and Proctor & Gamble, are phasing out the use of triclosan. The FDA should take Ms. Wu's advice and "get it off the shelf."