The next time you stroll down the soap aisle at the grocery store, watch for the word "antibacterial." Then check the ingredients label on the back. There's a good chance it contains triclosan.
That concerns some state lawmakers, who are expected to take up a ban on triclosan in consumer products during the short legislative session — one of the few environmental issues on the agenda.
The Minneapolis City Council has urged the state to ban triclosan, and Gov. Mark Dayton has already ordered state agencies to stop using products containing the chemical. If state lawmakers pass legislation this year, Minnesota would be the first state to ban triclosan.
The chemical has been around since the 1960s and more recently has been added to a long list of products — from deodorant and face cream to toothpaste. University of Minnesota researchers, who have found increasing amounts of triclosan in lakes and rivers, say it can interact with chlorine and sunlight to form harmful dioxins in the environment.
Meanwhile, some also argue triclosan is not necessary to prevent the spread of germs. It has been used as a marketing ploy, but its popularity is wearing off, said state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville.
"Lots of manufacturers are beginning to realize that this isn't a sales pitch anymore," Marty said. "The industry is beginning to phase it out. I think if Minnesota moves forward on it that will send one more huge signal to the industry."
Proctor and Gamble, Johnson and Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline have already been phasing out triclosan from all of their products. Colgate-Palmolive has taken triclosan out of some products but not others, and other companies are fighting to keep triclosan in their products.
The American Cleaning Institute, an industry group that has fought past efforts to ban triclosan in Minnesota, will again argue that the chemical is safe and effective, allowing it to meet U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards, said Brian Sansoni, the institute's spokesman.
"We believe the data and research has been there and will continue to show to the regulatory community that consumers should continue to have access to these products and they do play an important role in everyday hygiene," Sansoni said.
But some public health experts are arguing triclosan should not play any role in everyday hygiene.
"There are a lot better products out there we want people to use," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "So if you're using one of these products, you're actually, for the purpose of reducing disease, not using the best product you can."
Osterholm said alcohol-based hand rubs, for example, do a better job getting rid of unwanted germs. Triclosan, he said, doesn't even kill norovirus, a common food borne illness.
"I can say as the public health person on the infectious disease side, the benefits aren't there," he said. "So if the risks are something to be measured, then in a risk-benefit analysis this chemical shouldn't and doesn't hold up."
Osterholm said it may take several more years of research to understand triclosan's full environmental impact, but he said there's no reason to wait.
"I think one day we're going to look back and say, why didn't we do this much sooner?" he said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has proposed new rules on triclosan for hand soaps and body washes, but some environmental groups doubt the FDA will ban the chemical.
Trevor Russell, watershed program director for Friends of the Mississippi River says environmentalists first brought their concerns about triclosan to the FDA in the late '70s. He said the agency doesn't necessarily consider the environment in its decisions.
"It is not their jurisdiction whether or not dioxins are building up in Mississippi River water or lakes around the state, which they are," he said.
Dioxins have been associated with birth defects and cancer, and can also harm aquatic life. Russell said they can work their way up the food chain, and the consequences of that are not fully understood.
"We're the top of the watershed. The Mississippi starts here and flows downstream," he said. "Everything we do here affects everyone who lives downstream of us, so if we're the place that phases out triclosan and ends this dioxin pollution to our rivers, we're the top of the watershed and we hope that would have a cascading positive effect on those who live downstream."
Details of the state ban are still being worked out, but the proposal is expected to get its first hearing early next month. Efforts last year to ban the chemical stalled.