Week of 06/27/10

Dear EarthTalk: I heard about a supposed dangerous chemical called "triclosan" that is in many personal care and other consumer products. Can you enlighten?

—Carl Stoneman, Richland, WA

Triclosan is a synthetic chemical compound added to many personal and household care products to inhibit illness by preventing bacterial infection. It works by breaking down the biochemical pathways that bacteria use to keep their cell walls intact, and as such kills potentially harmful germs if used in strong enough formulations. First developed as a surgical scrub back in 1972, triclosan is now used in upwards of 700 different consumer-oriented products, many of which people use more than once a day. They include hand soaps, deodorants, toothpastes, kids" toys, yoga mats and, of course, hand sanitizers.

Whether triclosan is actually as effective as advertised, especially in the small doses found in consumer products, is a topic of much debate. Manufacturers insist that the product helps reduce infections. But researchers from the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health found, after surveying 27 different studies conducted between 1980 and 2006 on the effectiveness of antibacterial soaps, that washing hands with products containing triclosan was no more effective in preventing infectious illness—and did not remove any more bacteria—than plain soaps. The analysis, "Consumer Antibacterial Soaps: Effective or Just Risky?" was published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed journal, Clinical Infectious Diseases. According to lead researcher Allison Aiello, triclosan—because of the way it reacts in living cells—may cause some bacteria exposed to it to become resistant to amoxicillin and other commonly used antibacterial drugs, but she adds that more research is needed to bear out this hypothesis.

Manufacturers that use triclosan in their products insist that the synthetic chemical helps reduce infections. But numerous studies have shown that washing hands with products containing triclosan was no more effective in preventing infectious illness than plain soaps. Other research even links triclosan to various human health and environmental problems.© Jack Black's Stunt Double, courtesy Flickr

Anti-bacterial soaps and other products utilizing triclosan may in fact be doing more harm than good for the people who use it regularly. According to the non-profit Beyond Pesticides, triclosan has been linked to various human health problems. "It is associated with skin irritation, has been shown to interfere with the body’s hormones, and has been linked to an increased risk of developing respiratory illness, or asthma, and cancer, as well as subtle effects on learning ability," reports the group, adding that 75 percent of Americans are walking around today with trace levels of triclosan in their bloodstreams. Tests using lab animals have verified that exposure to large doses of triclosan can cause irreparable health damage, but industry representatives say that the levels found in consumer products are much too small to do so.

Beyond its potential human health effects, triclosan can also harm the environment. According to Beyond Pesticides, some 96 percent of the triclosan from consumer products is washed down drains where it flows into wastewater treatment plants often ill-equipped to deal with it. Inevitably some of the triclosan escapes treatment and is released into local waterways, where exposure to sunlight can convert it into dioxins, a highly toxic group of chemicals responsible for contaminating waterways and wreaking havoc on wildlife.

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is finally taking a fresh look at triclosan after years of controversy, consumers can do their part by asking the places they shop to stop selling products containing the controversial chemical additive. The Beyond Pesticides website offers a customizable sample letter designed to help consumers convince local retailers to forego stocking items with triclosan.

CONTACTS: Clinical Infectious Diseases; Beyond Pesticides; U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

Dear EarthTalk: I am a bartender in Sacramento and I would love to be able to use some sort of locally made or sustainable version of sugar. What’s out there?

—Ryan Seng, via e-mail

The rerouting of South Florida"s fragile water table to irrigate thirsty sugar plantations contributed to the decimation of the Everglades, one of the nation"s most unique and diverse ecosystems. Pictured: A Florida sugar cane and coconut vendor prepares some raw sugar cane.© Ashe-villain, courtesy Flickr

It sure would be nice if we could obtain all of our food and drink items from local sources, but sugar provides an excellent example of why such a desire may remain a pipe dream in the United States for a long time to come. The sugar we consume that is produced domestically comes from sugar cane grown in Hawaii and the Southeast and sugar beet from the Upper Midwest, Pacific Northwest, California and elsewhere. However, it is likely milled and refined hundreds if not thousands of miles from where it is harvested, and then shipped all over the country—causing untold greenhouse gas emissions—in various sized packages for our consumption in our coffee, on our cereal and, for some of us, in our cocktails.

Massive government subsidies and land giveaways to the sugar industry in the American Southeast beginning in the early 18th century established a market for American-grown sugar despite the fact that the region’s climate was not tropical enough to grow cane efficiently. To add insult to injury, the rerouting of south Florida’s fragile water table to irrigate thirsty sugar plantations contributed to the decimation of the Everglades, one of the nation’s most unique and diverse ecosystems—and now the subject of a multi-billion dollar restoration effort.

While you might be hard pressed to find commercially available local sugar anywhere in the U.S., you could make your own. "Years ago, when sugar was an expensive commodity, many people of lesser means made their own sugar from sugar beets," reports writer Kat Yares on the eHow.com website. "Every farm and every home garden had a spot reserved for beets, and a day was set aside to cook the beets down into sugar." While very few of us grow our own food these days, growing sugar beets and making sugar from scratch can be a fun, educational and tasty project for parents and kids or for foodies intent on local sourced, preservative-free ingredients. Yares explains the whole process in her "How to Make Sugar from Beets" article on eHow.com.

If that all sounds like too much work, perhaps you can settle for store-bought organic sugar, which may not be local but which is at least produced without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Florida Crystals, Hain, C&H, Domino and others each offer organic sugar varieties in many traditional grocery stores coast-to-coast. There are even more choices at natural foods specialty stores (like Whole Foods). Believe it or not, there are even vegan sugars out there—that is, sugars not processed with animal-derived bone char in the refinement process.

While sugar itself may be a staple item for many cocktails, some interesting alternative natural sweeteners, some of which may be locally sourced in your region, do exist. Agave nectar, honey or even maple syrup are some options that might just give that Tom Collins the extra kick it needs to make it stand out from the other bartender’s drinks down the street—or in your breakfast cereal, for that matter.

CONTACTS: eHow; Florida Crystals; Hain; C&H; Domino.

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