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Hand-Washing 101: Use Soap and Water


Each September we get a supply list from my children’s school. Inevitably to be found on the list is hand-sanitizer. Now I understand the teacher’s intentions are good — everyone knows schools are germ breeding grounds — but with all of the research showing that the active ingredients in many of the hand-sanitizers are potentially cancer-causing, I can’t understand why we are still being asked to bring them in each year. Perhaps I am just too close to the issues, or know too much for my own good, but I still wonder why these products are still being used in our homes, our offices, and our schools.

Probably my biggest mistake is to assume everyone knows about the research on these chemicals. And there is plenty.

And probably the biggest question I have is why manufacturers are still using triclosan when there are doubts about its safety. Not to mention that there is a very simple, elegant, safe solution: hand-washing. An FDA panel (PDF of report) of experts conducted a multi-year study, which found that hand-sanitizers are no more effective than hand-washing at reducing the spread of bacteria. They also found the ingredients in these products were potential health hazards and that they were persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment. So the downsides are great: potential cancer-causing agent; possible endocrine disrupting; and suspected breeder of super bugs — you know, those bacteria that can resist all antibiotics.

In the EU, they have a the REACH directive, which ultimately will require manufacturers to prove that the chemicals they are using are safe. Now the directive is not without it’s detractors who argue that it doesn’t have enough teeth or is too Big Brother. But it certainly makes sense: A product is not used by consumers until the safety of all its ingredients is assured. Right now the system is working in reverse: new chemicals are produced and used to manufacture products every day that are not proven safe.

And where do these chemicals end up? In our environment and in our water. Here’s an example. Triclosan is in your toothpaste (not all of them, but many). You brush your teeth. Spit out the excess toothpaste with triclosan. The water goes to your local treatment plant. Most chemicals are removed during treatment. Most, but not all. You do that day after day. So do millions of other people. These trace amounts add up. They enter the environment and don’t break down. Those chemicals end up in our lakes, rivers, streams, and then back into our drinking water. It all comes full circle.

Sorry to be so radical, but the ubiquity of the anti-bacterial personal care products are going to be our next water bottle debacle. Both of these issues are sure to remain hot topics on the environmental sustainability agenda. Two unnecessary products that only 10 years ago were virtually unheard of and are now having a huge impact on the natural world.

OK, enough of my diatribe for today. Bottom line: We as consumers need to stop buying this stuff for our homes and offices and schools.

Elizabeth Striano
Consultant and writer on sustainability and the environment

Helping you leave a green footprint on the world…


Author: Elizabeth Striano

Elizabeth Striano is a science writer and editor and owner of A Green Footprint LLC, which provides communications and sustainabiilty consulting services to environmental consulting firms, nonprofits, and a variety of businesses and organizations.

3 thoughts on “Hand-Washing 101: Use Soap and Water

  1. Pingback: 75 Tips to Go Green at Home and at Work « A Greener Perspective

  2. It is true that this chemicals cause more harm to us, therefore it is necessary to be more conscious of what we consume. Am working on hand washing among students and I have discovered that they prefer to use hand sanitizers because it really does not involve much process and it is handy compared to using clean water and soap.
    However, clean water and soap is safer n washes out more of the germs on our hands than the hand sanitizers. To keep using these sanitizers is to endanger our life and environment.

    • Not all hand sanitizers contain triclosan — many contain only alcohol, which is not as bad. What concerns me even more though, is that many toothpastes now contain triclosan, which has not even been approved for human consumption. All of these chemicals eventually end up in our water supply and our environment. Typical wastewater treatment cannot remove these “microconstituents” (industry term) 100% effectively. This is particularly true with older systems.

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