FDA: Antibacterial Soap May Harm Pregnant Women and Babies

Pregnant women should avoid using antibacterial soaps due to increasing fears they damage the health of both mother and baby. Common antibacterial compounds are causing growing concern among environmental health experts, scientists will say today at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. In the latest research to be presented, scientists will reveal a link between exposure to the chemicals and shorter newborn birth weight. 

In the long-term, this could cause a subtle but large-scale shift in birth sizes, they warn.

Study contributor Benny Pycke, of Arizona State University, said evidence is increasingly showing the compounds can lead to developmental and reproductive problems in animals -  and potentially in humans. In 2010, for example, researchers at the University of Florida found that the chemical triclosan hinders an enzyme linked to the metabolism of the hormones oestrogen. 

In pregnancy, this enzyme, called oestrogen sulfotransferase, helps metabolise oestrogen and move it through the placenta into the developing foetus. 

There, the oestrogen plays a crucial role in brain development and the regulation of genes, the researchers reported in the journal Environment International.

Some research also suggests that the additives in antibacterial soaps could contribute to antibiotic resistance, a growing public health problem.

Triclosan and triclocarban are used in more than 2,000 everyday products marketed as antimicrobial, including toothpastes, soaps, detergents, carpets, paints, school supplies and toys.

In May, a study directly linked common household chemicals with damage to human sperm for the first time.

The scientists said that the ‘ubiquitous’ chemicals in everyday products including toothpaste, soap and sunscreen may be contributing to widespread fertility problems in the Western world.
The German and Danish researchers tested almost 100 everyday chemicals – and discovered that a third affected sperm.

Writing in the journal EMBO Reports, they said some of the chemicals are found in sunscreen. Also on the list is triclosan, an antibacterial agent that is less used now than in the past but is still in some soaps and toothpaste. Laboratory tests using a level of chemicals similar to what the body is generally exposed to showed these chemicals affect the way sperm swim. They also lead to an early release of compounds critical to fertilisation and make sperm less sensitive to female sex hormones. These changes could make it more difficult for the sperm to reach the egg.

In the new Arizona study, researchers looked at the exposure of pregnant women and their foetuses to triclosan and triclocarban, two of the most commonly used germ-killers in soaps and other everyday products.

'We found triclosan in all of the urine samples from the pregnant women that we screened. We also detected it in about half of the umbilical cord blood samples we took, which means it transfers to foetuses. Triclocarban was also in many of the samples.'

Worse, though, was the discovery by his colleague Laura Geer, of the State University of New York.

She says the study found a link between women with higher levels of another widely-used antimicrobial called butyl paraben - often used in cosmetics - and shorter newborn lengths.

This could, in the long-term, cause a subtle but large-scale shift in birth sizes, she warns.

And although the human body is efficient at flushing out triclosan and triclocarban, a person's exposure to them can potentially be constant.

In late May, Minnesota became the first state to prohibit the use of triclosan in most consumer hygiene products. The ban will come into force in January 2017.

The FDA and Environmental Protection Agency are also reviewing the use and effects of the compounds.