With all the concern over Ebola virus, there has been heightened awareness of risks that can be faced by health care workers who are just doing their best to care for patients. In the case of that deadly virus, the need is paramount not only to wear gloves, but also to fully suit-up in protective gear (the shortage of such supplies has proved to be a killer). But for more run of the mill protection, simple adequate hand washing is a key practice in protecting both the patient and caregiver. Only now it seems, hand washing itself can carry its own exposure risks.
What was once just soap and water is nowadays soap infused with special chemicals purported to kill pathogens. Chief among those chemicals is a synthetic molecule called “tricolsan.” Triclosan is not a substance that most people have ever heard of, including people who work in health care. Maybe it’s time we all learned more.
Triclosan has characteristics that make it something the Natural Resources Defense Council, for one, is worrying about. Triclosan is a manmade material that does not occur on its own in nature, but it has a chemical structure that can be mistaken for a biological messenger, in particular a chemical that might otherwise serve as a hormone. When a foreign substance acts as a hormone imposter (the more genteel scientific label is “hormone disruptor”), it can block normal routes of communication. This, in turn, can throw off the delicate natural hormonal balance required for a wide array of normal functions. For triclosan, in addition to being a potential hormone disruptor, it carries the double whammy of being persistent in the environment. Coming in as a trifecta of troubles, triclosan use also is very widespread. Even as you read this, triclosan-containing materials are being washed down drains all around the country – traveling out to taint our water resources and the wider environment.