Companies are embedding antimicrobial compounds into everything from toothpaste and hand soaps to socks, underwear, and workout clothing to kill germs and odors. While going to this extra germ-fighting effort might seem smart at first glance, scientists are finding that some antimicrobial chemicals are actually harming humans' thyroids and hormonal systems.
The kicker? Many antimicrobials used in pricier consumer products aren't any better than traditional soap-and-water washing.
Adding to the rip-off angle, the Swedish government recently analyzed clothing impregnated with the antibacterial agents silver, triclosan, and trichlorocarban and found that the germ- and odor-killing compounds often wash away very quickly, sometimes after just three washings. Because of the rapid wash-out and health threats posed by the chemicals, a Swiss-commissioned report actually suggests companies phase out the use of antimicrobials in clothing.
Researchers with the Swedish Chemical Agency tested clothing treated with antimicrobials and measured how much remained in the clothing after three and ten standard washings. After ten rounds through the washing machine, about half of the triclosan and triclocarban in treated clothing had washed out. Results for silver were more variable—some products shed half of the antimicrobial material after just three washings, while others shed just 2 percent after ten washings. While it fared better, that still doesn't mean it's safe. Silver is often used in nanoparticle form—extremely tiny particles that can cross the blood-brain barrier.
Some high-profile public health experts warn against buying products treated with nanoparticles because the technology has never been thoroughly tested for effects on human health.
The levels of washed-out germ- and odor-killers are also troubling because most will wind up in the environment after passing through water treatment plants, presenting risks to wildlife, humans, and the food system. The SCA also worries that people, especially children with developing systems, could absorb the microbial compounds.
To avoid products treated with these potentially harmful antimicrobial substances, avoid homeware products and clothing marketed as anti-odor, antimicrobial, or antibacterial, and avoid personal care products that list triclosan or trichlorocarban on the ingredients label.
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