Beware What You Read

It’s quite common for the media to exaggerate claims or to use the tactic of fear to get readers or viewers. At the risk of contradicting my last post on anecdotal evidence, just watch an episode of Dateline. Your mattress may be ridden with bed bugs!

So it comes as little surprise that Yahoo! has an article up noting that triclosan (a pesticide) may do more harm than good.

There are concerns that triclosan may contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It’s also present in human bodies and breast milk, as well as in streams. The Environmental Working Group says triclosan has been linked to developmental defects, liver toxicity, and cancer in lab studies. It also may affect thyroid and other hormones that are crucial to normal development.

These “concerns” are rather fabricated. It may very well be true that triclosan has horrible, apocalyptic effects that will stunt your growth and give you cancer. But it’s pretty unlikely. And the honest results of the study bear this out.

Further research is clearly needed to assess whether the emergence of antibiotic resistance in the community setting is associated with the growing use of soaps containing triclosan.

The reason for this is that the study had so many variables in it, it’s basically pretty tough make a definitive determination one way or the other. For starters, there is no known baseline resistance for triclosan. That is, no one knows how much triclosan resistance is naturally in bacteria populations and how much is there due to the increased use of triclosan. Then there’s the fact that the studies didn’t bear out higher rates of resistance in these ‘natural’ settings. If you control the environment and allow little to no contaminantion, yes, facing specific bacteria against a pesticide may very well result in an increased resistance. There are no guarantees in evolution, but the effects of natural selection can be a bit exaggerated in the lab. One possible reason no resistance was found in the uncontrolled environments is that any added genetic mutations are too specific and costly to do well.

So essentially, it is inconclusive whether there is any added danger to using soaps with triclosan in them. Bacteria is unlikely to become resistant outside a lab, especially when there is more than one species at a time vying for survival against this pesticide. Again, there are no guarantees in evolution, but I’m betting your livers and thyroids are safe.

But to be fair, the Yahoo! article is initially focused on pointing out that anti-bacterial soaps are no more effective at hand hygiene than traditional soap and water. This is an accurate description of the findings of this study. I just hope Yahoo! is more careful next time when they want to elicit fear from readers. I won’t hold my breath.