Unfounded chemical fears: Triclosan and chromium-6

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Last week brought news that Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) was holding a press conference about the perils of “toxic” chemicals. As cameras rolled and hot lights shone down, Markey displayed a letter addressed to the FDA asking for an expedited review of triclosan, an antibacterial chemical found in thousands of hand sanitizers, soaps and toothpastes sold in the U.S. Among the reasons cited by Markey and other activists and politicians for placing triclosan under scrutiny are the results of animal studies conducted earlier this year. These are alleged to have demonstrated that the antiseptic chemical can “alter hormone regulation.”

Word of these events prompts ACSH’s Dr. Elizabeth Whelan and Dr. Gilbert Ross to cringe. “When we read that some group has labeled triclosan as an ‘endocrine disruptor’, we know what this means: some anti-chemical organization has decided that triclosan needs to be eliminated. They know from past experience that they will get media headlines by using the term ‘endocrine disruptor’, even though it has no more than a vague scientific meaning,” says Dr. Ross. “Worse, in this case they have recruited a Congressman known to be sympathetic to such hogwash.”

Over the summer, the CDC reported that urine triclosan levels in the general population increased by 42 percent between 2003 and 2006. But ACSH’s Jonathan Leaf points out that Rep. Markey’s letter, “tells us the percentage by which triclosan levels increased, but fails to mention the exact amounts.” In fact, an ACSH review of the actual data in the CDC report shows a “jump” in triclosan levels from just over 3 micrograms per liter to above 4 micrograms. These are trace levels, and understandably the CDC report expressly notes: “Finding measurable amounts of triclosan in urine does not mean that the levels of triclosan cause an adverse health effect.” Curiously, Rep. Markey made no mention of this comment in his own letter.

Meanwhile, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson vied for the award of most dubious health claims of the year by announcing on Wednesday that she will issue guidelines to help communities test for increased levels of hexavalent chromium in public drinking water. Spurred by a report released recently by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Ms. Jackson stated that the “EPA has already been working to review and incorporate the ground-breaking science referenced in this report.”

ACSH advisor Dr. Robert Baratz, an expert on metal exposure and professor at the Boston University and Tufts University Schools of Medicine, expressed his skepticism over the threat of hexavalent chromium in drinking water. In an NPR article, he explained that it’s difficult to draw scientifically valid conclusions from the single samples EWG took from water taps in various cities. In addition, he questioned EWG’s decision to use a limit on chromium proposed for California as a benchmark for what would be an acceptable level of chromium-6 nationwide.

Regardless, Dr. Whelan can’t help but express her amazement that the EWG acquired this much undeserved credibility and was being cited as a “scientific” source by the head of the EPA. “I spoke with a reporter the other day who admitted that the EWG has few actual scientists on its board, and they’re just a database that shoots out scary but baseless health claims,” Dr. Whelan comments.

Our research found exactly one member of the EWG board has scientific credentials.