How Pharos altered my marketplace behavior

James Vallette | May 31, 2012

Researching products for Pharos is a privileged if at times depressing position.  I learn how materials are made, and then I help to alert people to potential hazards about products they are considering buying. This knowledge comes in handy when I am doing my own shopping.

Last weekend, I opened my wife Eliza’s family camp in the Adirondacks.  I noticed that the kitchen dish rack was deteriorating to the point that granular resins were rubbing off the surface. It was the end of that product’s service life.

When I went in search of a replacement, my inside knowledge kicked in.  In Pharos, ingredients that trigger a purple flag in the Chemical and Material Library really get noticed.  These chemicals devastate a product’s evaluation in Pharos.

One product type where we regularly encounter a purple flag chemical is acrylic paints.  Some acrylic paints incorporate biocides, and sometimes these antimicrobials are based on the chemical, triclosan. This is a particularly nasty additive, and it is in widespread use.  Triclosan generates a purple flag in Pharos because it is classified as a persistent bioaccumulative toxicant or PBT.

A PBT is a long-lived substance that generally doesn’t break down quickly in the environment and accumulates in organisms (including humans), as it moves through the food chain.  Triclosan is particularly tough on aquatic organisms. Acrylic paints with triclosan receive very low marks in Pharos for both Manufacturing Toxicity and Toxic Content.

One of the many products in which triclosan-based antimicrobials are now common is kitchen equipment, including dish racks.  Unfortunately, water flows from dish racks into a kitchen sink, then into the aquatic environments, like the lake above which lies Eliza’s camp.  In water, triclosan can break down into a type of dioxin.

When I went shopping for a replacement rack in a grocery store near camp, every single one on sale bore a label boasting that it contains an antimicrobial with the trade name, Microban.  From my research for Pharos, I knew that Microban is 99% triclosan.

Looking at these racks, I thought of the purple flag in Pharos, and I thought of a new study that I just read: The Trouble With Triclosan, by Environmental Defence Canada.  The environmental action organization found that triclosan is accumulating in human bodies at a surprising rate.  They are urging regulators to ban this chemical from consumer products.

"Today's data show how widespread the chemical is in our bodies. So consumers should do what they can to avoid products that contain it. Because the danger with triclosan isn't just the level of exposure, it's also the length of time someone is exposed," said Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, which is based in Toronto.

Environmental Defence and other public health and environmental advocates are stepping up campaigns against the proliferation of  these biocides in consumer products.  They are fighting a general acceptance – reflected in my limited options for dish rack purchases – of  antimicrobials in the marketplace.  In fact, Microban claims, “The addition of Microban antimicrobial protection increased consumer purchase preference for that brand significantly with a +18 point shift in market share.”

As our colleague Julie Silas wrote in a Signal article on antimicrobials two years ago, “Just because the advertiser says you need something, that doesn’t mean you really do!”

Trendy materials, like lead-based pigments or asbestos-vinyl tile, come and go, and the time for triclosan may be drawing nigh. More consumers will consider toxicological concerns about triclosan in the near future.  Microban/triclosan could be the next Bisphenol-A in consumer product activism.

“Triclosan is an antibacterial chemical used in hundreds of products, from soap to makeup, even smartphone cases,” warns the Environmental Defence Canada report. “The Canadian Medical Association has called for a ban from use in consumer products. These doctors are concerned that triclosan could contribute to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as ‘superbugs.’

“It’s also a known endocrine disruptor—interfering with the human body's natural hormones.  Many of these disruptors have been linked to thyroid problems and cancer.  And triclosan contaminates the environment, washing down our drains to pollute rivers and lakes, where it bioaccumulates in aquatic species, decreasing algae populations, mimicking male hormones in fish (thereby altering sex ratios), and due to hormone disrupting properties, affecting the development of frogs.”

For consumers, including myself, this kind of knowledge is extremely important. Given the lack of options on the shelf, I decided to forgo the dish rack. Eliza’s family will just have to use cloth towels to dry their dishes this summer. Sometimes market transformation starts with the simplest decision:  not to buy anything at all.