The FDA proposal comes more than 40 years after the agency was first tasked with evaluating triclosan, triclocarban and similar ingredients. Ultimately, the government only agreed to publish its findings after a three-year legal battle with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that accused the FDA of delaying action on triclosan. The chemical is found in an estimated 75 percent of antibacterial liquid soaps and body washes sold in the U.S., including some brands of Dial from Henkel AG & Co., one of the nation's largest soap makers.
While the FDA ruling only applies to liquid hygiene cleaners, it has implications for a broader $1 billion industry that includes thousands of antibacterial products, including kitchen knives, toys, pacifiers and toothpaste. Over the last 20 years, companies have added triclosan and other cleaners to thousands of household products, touting their germ-killing benefits.
The FDA was tasked with confirming those benefits in 1972, as part of a law designed to set guidelines for dozens of common antibacterial cleaners. But the guidelines got bogged down in years of regulatory delays and missed deadlines. The agency published a preliminary draft of its findings in 1978, but never finalized the results until Monday.
Most of the research surrounding triclosan's safety involves laboratory animals, including studies in rats that showed changes in testosterone, estrogen and thyroid hormones. Some scientists worry that such changes in humans could raise the risk of infertility, early puberty and even cancer.
FDA scientists stressed Monday that such studies are not necessarily applicable to humans, but the agency is reviewing their implications.
"We recognize that these are laboratory tests, and the challenge is to understand what they actually mean for effects on humans," Kweder told journalists on a press call. She noted that the government's National Toxicology Program is already studying whether daily skin exposure to hormone-altering chemicals could lead to cancer.