Shampoo, Soap, and Toothpaste: The New Water Pollution?

Last week, a study from the University of Minnesota found that increasing amounts of triclosan, an anti-microbial ingredient used in soaps, toothpastes, and even some over-the-counter drugs, were present in lakes across Minnesota. Researchers studied sediment cores from the bottoms of eight different lakes and found that levels of triclosan and its byproducts increased after its release into the market in the 1970s.

When people use shampoo, toothpaste, or soap that contains triclosan, it gets washed into drains and to our wastewater infrastructure. Treatment plants are unable to remove all of the triclosan [PDF], and as a result, it can end up in our rivers, lakes, and streams that we use for drinking water supplies.

In the water, triclosan can attach to sediment and accumulate over time, potentially posing a risk to aquatic organisms and plants. When waters contaminated with triclosan are exposed to sunlight, toxic byproducts are released including four types of dioxins, a known carcinogen. Research is ongoing to better understand the effects of triclosan on rivers, streams, and lakes.

The cumulative and long-term impacts of triclosan in our water on our health are not well understood either, although existing data points to troubling results. A report from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in 2008 found that triclosan is present in the urine of 75 percent of the U.S. population. Multiple studies demonstrate that triclosan can alter hormone levels, causing decreased thyroid function and increased growth of breast cancer cells among other impacts.

While the presence of triclosan in drinking water is not the only pathway of exposure for many people, it could potentially have negative consequences for our health.

On average, women use an estimated 10 to 15 personal care products every day. Unfortunately, triclosan isn’t the only chemical in these types of products that may be causing harm to our rivers and streams. Synthetic fragrances have been found to reduce the ability of aquatic organisms to remove toxins and pollutants.

Tiny plastic beads used in exfoliating products collect in waters and can be eaten by marine life. Synthetic chemicals that mimic the hormone estrogen can be found in 57% of personal care products. These types of endocrine disruptors [PDF] bind to hormone receptors and can cause abnormal responses – from cancer to behavioral changes to reproductive disorders.

The EPA calls these substances ‘contaminants of emerging concern’ and is working to improve the science and understanding of how personal care products and pharmaceuticals found in our waters impact not just the environment, but our health. Drug take-back programs can help to reduce the number of pharmaceuticals that are improperly disposed in toilets or down the drain. Making informed choices about personal care products is another step that consumers can take to not only protect their health, but to protect our rivers, streams, and lakes.

The Story of Cosmetics takes a creative approach to examining the toxic chemicals found in everyday cosmetic products: