chemical prevalent in household cleaning products is being banned by super markets because of fears that it could endanger human health and wildlife.
Triclosan, a biocide designed to kill bacteria, is widely used in toothpaste, detergents and plastic kitchen equipment such as bowls and chopping boards. It has been heavily promoted as a way of eradicating germs.
But in recent years evidence has mounted that it is contaminating people and the environment, and could result in a new breed of deadly “superbugs” – bacteria capable of resisting antibiotics.
The environmental regulatory agencies in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark have all voiced concern about the chemical.
Now major retailers in Britain have decided to get rid of it. Marks & Spencer, Asda, B&Q and Sainsbury’s all told the Sunday Herald that they are hoping to phase out triclosan from their products.
The alarm was first raised three years ago after five Swedish government watchdogs called for a ban on the “unnecessary use” of triclosan. The chemical had been detected in sewage, fish and mothers’ breast milk, and retailers in Sweden cleared their shelves of it.
Their stance was backed by leading British experts, including Professor Peter Gilbert, a micro biologist from the Uni versity of Manchester. The fashion for antibacterial agents was “marketing hype”, which played to people’s prejudices, he said.
There was a legitimate worry that the widespread use of triclosan could help bacteria adapt and become resistant to antibiotics, making prescribed drugs incapable of combating bacterial infections. Its presence in breast milk and the environment was also potentially dangerous, Swedish experts warned.
But in 2000, when the Sunday Herald first reported the fears about triclosan, supermarkets were convinced there was no problem. Sainsbury’s, which markets a range of kitchen products containing triclosan under the Microban brand, was adamant that it was safe.
Now, however, the retailer has taken a distinctly different view. “As part of our continuing product enhancement programme, we are actively considering effective alternatives as they become available,” said a spokeswoman for Sainsbury’s. “Triclosan is always clearly labelled when used.”
Its strategy on chemicals was “constantly evolving”, she added. “We are committed to complying with European Union legislation which will come into force in 2020 that limits the number of chemicals that are permitted.
“Where feasible, we aim to phase these chemicals out in our own brand non-foods by 2005.”
Hilary Thompson, the social responsibility manager of the DIY chain B&Q, said triclosan was present in a toilet seat and two types of sink currently on sale. But she added: “We would like to phase it out and are investigating alternatives. As part of our DIY detox programme, we would like it excluded by 2005.”
Asda said that its customers had expressed concerns about triclosan and so the company had raised the issue with the British Retail Consortium. “We are looking at whether we can phase it out,” said a company spokeswoman.
The toughest stance, however, has been taken by Marks & Spencer, which has promised to eliminate the chemical from its products within six months.
“We have identified triclosan as a chemical that the business does not want to use,” declared a spokeswoman for the retail giant. “We have already phased it out of some products like washing-up liquid. We will have totally phased out its use within the next six months.”
Environmentalists have welcomed the supermarkets’ action as long overdue. “Triclosan is an unnecessary addition to most products and all retailers should be phasing out such items as quickly as possible,” said Duncan McLaren, chief executive of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“While other countries have taken a precautionary approach and advised against the unnecessary use of biocides in household products, the UK has again lagged behind. Until the UK catches up with these countries, consumers should shop with care,” he added.
Last week the European Commission published a major piece of legislation aimed at controlling 30,000 chemicals in everyday use.
As predicted by the Sunday Herald last week, the legislation had been watered down because of opposition from the chemicals industry and the US, British, French and German governments.
Some two thirds of the chemicals will only be subject to a lightweight registration procedure, requiring manu facturers or importers to provide much less safety information. And one whole class of chemicals, polymers, has been excluded from the registration process.
McLaren added: “We urgently require new laws that put consumers and the environment before the vested interests of the chemical industry. Yet just last week, as a result of massive lobbying by the chemicals industry, European legislation that would have done just that has been massively weakened.”
This is despite growing concern that some chemicals might be jeopardising human health and the environment. High levels of flame retardants suspected of causing cancer and damaging brain development have been found in mothers’ breast milk in Britain.
Other chemicals, known as nonylphenols and phthalates, have been detected in children’s pyjamas and bath toys. And baby toys, nappies, clothes an d plastics have been contaminated with tin compounds known as organotins, which scientists say could damage children’s immune systems. 02 November 2003