Ask the Nurse | Chemicals and Your Health

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Ask the Nurse: Christine Hammerlund, President of Assured Healthcare Staffing and Nurse

You don't have to be a cynic about health risks to doubt the value of lots of chemicals attached to almost everything you use.

A dose of health skepticism is healthy.

For many chemicals, no one asks in advance if you really need the chemical.

That's because some chemicals are judged by the Food and Drug Administration to be useful in limited ways, but they wind up being used so often that they can be perilous.

So let me introduce you to triclosan, an artificial organic-based ingredient added to many products to cut down on bacterial contamination. You can find it in toothpaste (it actually does help stop gingivitis) and clothing, kitchenware, furniture, and toys. It's also a favorite additive to antibacterial soaps and body washes, and some cosmetics-products regulated by the FDA. They call it triclosan because its real name - polychioro phenoxyl phenol - would scare everyone.

It makes products “fresh.” I'm not sure what that means exactly, but we generally are suckers for superficial packaging that makes us “feel” better without actually being better off.

It's still got the federal OK, but scientists are starting to question whether the chemical also can alter hormone regulation in humans. There are animals tests that suggests that risk could be at work.

The chemical is so ubiquitous that scientists also are wondering if it can start to effect of some bacteria's resistance to antibiotics. It's not even clear that the chemical addition to body soaps makes for a better product than regular soap and water.

To be sure if you want the risk, always check the product label. Also, the FDA has listened to consumer concern on this issue and has begun posting regular “consumer watch” lists for chemicals that might have risks. Go to this site to check it out: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/booster_shots/2008/09/fda-posts-list.html

As for triclosan's role in body washes, the American Medical Association advises using plain old-fashioned suds when washing your hands. Try vinegar to reduce microbial proliferation in bathrooms and kitchens.

Studies confirm the acidic nature of vinegar kills most microbes.

Of course, that's sort of an old-fashioned view. But it's safer.

In the world of health, I always vote for “safe” over all other concerns.