Thursday, May 30, 2013

Chemical Bandits in the Office

The hot pink sticky note

It was a typical Wednesday morning. I marched into work ready to tackle whatever odd, marine- related thing may come at me. Last week, a molting Elephant Seal, eager for a spot on the front page of The Leader, hauled out on Water Street. Earlier this week, a Humbolt Squid and Big Skate washed up, ready for tissue sampling. And today? An innocent looking box of pencils placed neatly on my desk bearing a hot pink sticky note. It read, “This seems bizarre – Chrissy” with an arrow pointing to a tiny icon at the bottom of the pencil box. The label looked like this:

My first thought: Yeah, that’s pretty bizarre. “Antimicrobial product protection” in a pencil? Ummmm... WHY?? 

My second thought: I vaguely remember an antimicrobial chemical guide by the Environmental Working Group[1]. I recalled how it outlined problems associated with chemicals like these.

Subsequently, a rapid stream of questions and concerns began rolling through my mind like successive frames of an old motion picture.  Were these the same pencils we use in our education programs at the PTMSC? The same pencils we give to students when teaching about toxic chemicals and their effects on humans and the marine environment? Something was VERY wrong with this picture, and I knew some toxics investigation was in order!

 Microban investigation results

It is invisible, inconspicuous, and dangerous.  Microban, also known as the chemical Triclosan[2], is a chemical found in more places than anyone would like. Upon interrogating Google about this chemical bandit, I arrived at page after lengthy page of articles, blogs, reports, and images. I found text like, “Triclosan is not currently known to be hazardous to humans[3]” and “Triclosan is linked to liver and inhalation toxicity, and low levels of triclosan may disrupt thyroid function.[4]”   Well, which one was true?  What made my investigation even more complicated was this statement from the USFDA (United State Food and Drug Administration): “[the] FDA does not have sufficient safety evidence to recommend changing consumer use of products that contain triclosan at this time.” What do they mean by “not sufficient safety evidence?”

Continuing on my quest for answers, I targeted the manufacturers of the suspicious pencils and the chemical Mircroban (aka- triclosan). I was sent on a convoluted cyber ride of answers:

“Hi Jamie,
Thank you for your interest in Microban. Please contact Ticonderoga to learn about the Microban additives they use in their product.”

“Jamie –
Please contact the manufacturers of Microban to find out more information about the chemicals in their products.”

Well, thanks a lot manufacturers! That makes everything MUCH clearer…

 After expressing my frustrations to the PTMSC volunteers, I was guided in some legitimate directions. Each morning I arrived at my desk to find helpful leads for my investigation – Material Safety Data Sheets[5], articles from local and national papers, and emails with personal sentiments about Microban’s prevalence in consumer products – all offered by our dedicated volunteers. I realized that finding the right answers on this topic was like navigating a deceptive labyrinth. I was motivated to make sense of it all – to offer guidance to others who shared my frustrations.

Decoding text on toxics

During my investigation, I found myself skeptical of phrases like, “It is not currently known to be toxic to humans.”  Does that necessarily mean that it is known to be safe to humans? Statements about chemicals not being known as toxic are about as useful as statements such as “Currently, we know nothing about this chemical.” I recalled how important it is to be critical of your sources so as to not be misled by vague claims.

Statements about toxicity of chemicals should not be assumed as entirely truthful. Consider who is making the statement. Non-profits, government organizations, private researchers, retailers, manufacturers, and individuals all have something to say about toxics. It’s important to consider what motives they may have, as well as what perspective they come from. Weighing these factors will help you remain unbiased while working to get to the bottom of things. Learn more about issues like this with a FREE copy of the PTMSC's Guide to Toxics

Don’t assume a product is toxic-free. I was caught in this act when researching Triclosan. While perusing resources, I felt like Triclosan was popping up in practically everything. I never expected to find the chemical in these common products I used daily:

Soap and dishwashing liquid
Cutting boards
Clothing and fabrics
Plastic food containers and kitchenware

Additionally, the manufacturers of Microban list 60 categories of consumer goods that include their antimicrobial technology. 

What pencils are we using now?

In 2012 the USFDA reported, “At this time, FDA does not have evidence that triclosan added to antibacterial soaps and body washes provides extra health benefits over soap and water.” If this is the case, then this statement begs the question – Why is it added to nearly all commercial antibacterial soaps? After hours of research, I don’t have a clear answer. For this reason, in addition to rigorous science linking Triclosan to adverse health effects in marine life and animals, the PTMSC has chosen to invest in different pencils. We now purchase our pencils for staff and students from a west coast company called Forest Choice. Toxic free and committed to conservative management of resources, we felt this company was a better vote with our dollar.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first case of inconspicuous toxics we’ve come across at the PTMSC. Staff has been rethinking our choices in electronics, new flooring materials, dry erase markers vs. chalk boards, pens, notebooks, and many others. In the spirit of reducing our exposure to and consumption of toxics, and despite the road blocks along the way, we are trying to walk the walk. We are trying to be toxic free. We may not succeed all the time, but we are working to educate ourselves and others. We are demanding a safer, healthier environment.

Jamie Landry is the Citizen Science Coordinator at the Port Townsend Marine Science Center and a resident of Port Townsend, WA.  She works closely with The Toxics Project – an effort by PTMSC to empower people with knowledge and resources to fight for their health, and the health of the marine environment. Please visit our exhibits and be inspired to demand a safer, healthier environment.

[3] Quote by US Food and Drug Administration, the US federal agency responsible for “Protecting and Promoting Health”
[4] Quote by the EWG, a trusted and well-established non-profit that advocates for a healthier environment by addressing issues surrounding the ubiquitous nature of toxic chemicals in the man-made and natural environments.
[5] Referred to as an MSDS and publically available online, they offer information about hazards, recommended first aid and personal protection measures, physical and chemical properties, and what is most important to consumers – toxicological information.

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