“Shocking” Truth about Government and Soap


Is your hand wash slowly killing you as government regulators sit idly by? Sounds silly, but that’s what environmentalists seem to think about an antibacterial agent called triclosan, which is used in soap and other consumer products.

According to the NRDC: “In laboratory studies, they [antibacterial chemicals] have been shown to disrupt hormones and can encourage the growth of drug-resistant bacteria or ‘superbugs.'” The group wants consumers to urge the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) “to pull products containing triclosan and triclocarban from store shelves.” The NRDC is also suing FDA for not completing its scientific review of triclosan, which has dragged on for more than 40 years.

The Globe and Mail reports: “Some Americans are shocked that the FDA has taken so long. Mallory Smith is troubled to learn that the government has never confirmed the safety of antibacterial soap’s key ingredient.”

Yet the fact that bureaucrats rarely move quickly isn’t shocking at all. In fact, the NRDC lawsuit proves why government isn’t well suited to take swift action or promote public safety. And there are many reasons why chemical reviews in particular take a long time, none of which have to do with safety.

First, chemical exposures from consumer products are generally too low to have any significant impacts. Measuring such negligible risks is akin to looking for needle in a field of haystacks. Government researchers can dig and dig, yet never find anything, nor can they prove a chemical is 100 percent safe since nothing is. So they continue with no end in sight.

For example, while triclosan has been used pretty widely for more than 40 years, there’s no hard evidence of triclosan-caused cancers or “superbugs.” The best greens can offer are allegations based on studies that suggest links between the chemical and health effects in rodents dosed large amounts. The same is true for naturally occurring chemicals in broccoli, coffee, pickles, and more. We don’t need an FDA review of these foods to know they are safe to eat and that these rodent studies are not particularly relevant to human health risks from trace chemicals.

In addition to the impossible task—and futility—of trying to quantify negligible risks, there’s little incentive for government agencies to issue any “final” conclusions. The researchers and program administrators develop entire careers around these programs. Each year, FDA lobbyists head to Capitol Hill asking for money to ensure that program heads, their employees, research partners, and the lobbyists of course, can continue to collect paychecks, health benefits, and, for some eventually, government pensions.

On top of that is the politics associated with environmental issues. Environmental activists keep these issues on the agenda using scare campaigns funded by direct mail that capture headlines and generate more governing funding for existing and new regulatory reviews. In addition, activists and industry groups prolong decisions by regularly suing agencies to either push or prevent action.

For example, EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been working for decades assessing the risk of dioxin. With billions spent, dioxin’s worst-demonstrated human-health impact is a skin rash resulting from exposure to extremely high levels that are not relevant to the trace exposures experienced by consumers. Other effects are speculative and based on rodent studies alone. EPA has continually failed to adequately demonstrate a cancer risk, but the program lives on.

Similarly, EPA has been working on revisions to its definition of solid waste since the 1980s, addressing it in lawsuits and issuing various regulatory revisions that require long comment periods and “stakeholder” involvement. While its most recent “final” revision came out in 2008, the agency launched another review in 2011. Does it really take that long to define “garbage?” Apparently so, if it’s a governmental decision.

Journalist Paul Alexander offers additional insights on the triclosan research delays in a Huffington Post piece on the topic. He reports:

When a process goes on this long, a kind of de facto acceptance of the substance sets in. “If the concern is public safety,” Mattie Duppler says, “expediency is vital.” Once it was apparent that hexachlorophene was a danger to newborns, for example, it was yanked from the market at once. “For the government to say they want to study something doesn’t mean the substance is problematic.”

Indeed, the fact that government hasn’t completed a review also does not mean a substance hasn’t been studied extensively. After all, industry does not make money by poisoning their customers and subjecting their own families to unreasonable risks. Industry and various independent scientific organizations study products extensively and these private systems work far better than government. CEI’s paper on green chemistry offers some examples. And the beauty of these private systems is that they are free to move quickly should revisions become necessary.

Privately conducted research has already provided significant assurance that triclosan is unlikely to pose health risks (see the numerous studies posted on this industry website) and is unlikely to promote anti-bacterial resistance. This research is available without lawsuits, myriad “stakeholder” meetings, comment periods, and other political delays.

Greens might suggest that industry research is tainted because it’s motivated by profit, but those incentives actually make private research better. Private firms risk their very survival if their products do harm—giving them far stronger incentives than that of unaccountable bureaucrats and government-funded researchers that never experience personal consequences for their decisions. Private review also focuses on making decisions in a timely manner so that businesses can sell valuable products that consumers want and enjoy. This private system is progressive—rather than focused on politics, paychecks, and defending regulatory turf.

Will NRDC ever heed this lesson?