A state Senate panel on Tuesday will consider making Minnesota the first state to ban triclosan, a common ingredient in antibacterial soap.
Environmental groups are concerned about triclosan and its byproducts, which include a dioxin, building up in the environment and causing potential health problems. Various dioxins have been associated with birth defects, allergy sensitivity and cancer.
Triclosan was invented in the 1960s and is added to hand soap, dish washing detergent and even toothpaste. It washes down the drain and ends up in lakes and rivers.
A recent University of Minnesota study found increasing amounts of the substance in eight Minnesota lakes. That study didn't test for triclosan's effect on the environment or human health, and it isn't yet clear exactly how much triclosan and its byproducts are enough to cause harm. But those who support banning the chemical say there's enough evidence to show it isn't worth the risk.
"Your hands don't get cleaner from washing them with a triclosan soap as opposed to plain old soap and water. There really isn't a consumer benefit to using these," said Trevor Russell, watershed program director for Friends of the Mississippi River. "We know there are some substantial risks on the public health and environmental side, and so we've seen some companies get out ahead and just remove this product."
Colgate-Palmolive is one company that has removed triclosan from most of its products, but industry groups argue triclosan is perfectly safe and shouldn't be banned. The American Cleaning Institute, which represents companies that make and distribute cleaning products, plans to testify against the bill during Tuesday's hearing before the Senate Environment and Energy Committee.
"It is used safely and effectively as a part of commonsense hygiene routines in homes, health care settings, commercial operations, every single day," said Brian Sansoni, an institute vice president. "It's a shame that there's been much misinformation about the chemistries that help make effective products that consumers use and have access to."
"Your hands don't get cleaner from washing them with a triclosan soap as opposed to plain old soap and water. There really isn't a consumer benefit to using these."
Sansoni said a ban on triclosan in Minnesota would be a logistical nightmare and would affect any Minnesota business that sells cleaning or personal care products. He said the levels of triclosan and its byproducts that the University of Minnesota researchers found in lakes were safe.
But Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said he has been hearing these kinds of arguments from companies for years. He said the industry that makes the products is often wrong about safety. For example, he said, the makers of a type of pressure-treated wood that used chromated copper arsenate argued for years that its product was safe. It's now banned for residential use.
"The industry always protests — this is perfectly safe, perfectly harmless — and I think it's time to start taking a look at it and maybe start being concerned about our constituents, the people who are breathing and absorbing into their skin and eating things that contain products, chemicals that we shouldn't be putting out there so frivolously," he said.
Marty carried a bill that became law more than a decade ago banning the toxic substance mercury from thermometers. He says there are thousands of "new mercuries" out there that need more attention.
"The assumption under our economy is that if I create a new chemical, I'm allowed to use it until we have pretty heavy evidence that it's dangerous — bad for the environment, bad for health," he said.
Other bills up for consideration before legislative committees would ban bisphenol A (BPA) and formaldehyde from children's products. BPA is already banned in baby bottles and "sippy" cups.
And another bill would place more scrutiny on several other chemicals that are found in many consumer goods: types of flame retardants, certain phthalates used in plastics, lead and cadmium. The bill also gives the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency the power to regulate the chemicals, and even phase them out if necessary.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton hasn't said whether he supports the bills. Last week he signed an executive order that phases out the use of triclosan in the soaps and other products that state agencies buy. But Kathleen Schuler, co-director of the Healthy Legacy coalition that is pushing the changes, said she is optimistic about the bills' chances.
"People do care about this issue, and it's really a bi-partisan issue," she said. "There's citizens out there in urban areas and suburban areas and rural areas, and all of them care about the chemicals that are in the products that their kids are exposed to."
Schuler and Russell, of Friends of the Mississippi River, said they both hope other states will follow Minnesota's lead.
"I think why Minnesota will be the first [to ban triclosan] is that we have better data than other states, and so we're in a better position to identify the risks that triclosan and its dioxin components pose to our environment," he said.