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Consumer Groups Put Pressure on Retailers to Drop Triclosan

Colgate Total toothpaste
Colgate has stood by the use of triclosan in Total, citing the rigorous Food and Drug Administration process that led to the toothpaste’s 1997 approval as an over-the-counter drug. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other retailers are under mounting pressure to eliminate products with triclosan, an antibacterial chemical used in hand soaps and Colgate-Palmolive Co.’s Total toothpaste.

Mike Schade, who is running a retailer-focused Mind the Store campaign for a Washington-based consumer group called Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said activists are increasing their efforts to get stores to remove potentially harmful ingredients from their shelves, including triclosan.

“New scientific studies continue to emerge on a monthly basis showing that this is a chemical that is hazardous at very low levels of exposure,” Schade, whose group lobbies to ban toxic chemicals from household products, said in an interview. “We think that it’s critically important for retailers and for brands like Colgate to move swiftly in phasing out this unnecessary hazardous chemical once and for all.”

Triclosan has been linked to cancer-cell growth and disrupted development in animals, and many consumer-product companies are already abandoning it. Colgate has stood by its use in Total, though, citing the rigorous Food and Drug Administration process that led to the toothpaste’s 1997 approval as an over-the-counter drug.

The activist push may come to a head next month when Wal-Mart and Target Corp. meet with suppliers in Chicago. The retailers are co-hosting the Beauty and Personal Care Products Sustainability Summit, an event that will evaluate the environmental and social impact of their wares.

Ten Chemicals

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, has already announced plans to require vendors to phase out 10 chemicals, though it hasn’t said what the additives are.

The Bentonville, Arkansas-based company declined to comment. Minneapolis-based Target referred any questions on products to suppliers themselves.

“Target is committed to providing high-quality and safe products,” the company said.

Bloomberg News reported earlier this week on the FDA assessment of Total toothpaste 17 years ago, raising new questions about the process. Recently released portions of the Total application show that the FDA relied on company-backed science and might not have done enough due diligence before approving the ingredient, according to three scientists who reviewed the documents at Bloomberg’s request.

Withheld Pages

The FDA had withheld 35 pages of the application from view until a Freedom of Information Act request led to a lawsuit. When the previously redacted pages were released this year, they included studies showing fetal bone malformations in mice and rats. With insights from more recent studies, the scientists told Bloomberg that the malformations might signal that triclosan is disrupting the endocrine system and throwing off hormonal functioning.

Colgate, based in New York, isn’t accused of wrongdoing, and the 35 pages don’t prove triclosan is harmful. It was the FDA’s decision to keep the documents off of its website, Colgate said. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, though it said earlier that Total’s effectiveness and safety were supported by more than 80 clinical studies.

“In the nearly 18 years that Colgate Total has been on the market in the U.S., there has been no signal of a safety issue from adverse-event reports,” Thomas DiPiazza, a company spokesman, said in response to Bloomberg’s earlier story.

Twitter Defense

Colgate also defended the product on Twitter this week, responding to tweets with an informational website about Total and triclosan.

“There are more published, peer-reviewed clinical studies of Colgate Total than of any other toothpaste in the world,” the company said on the website, which includes a YouTube clip explaining how the product fights gum disease.

Colgate rival Procter & Gamble Co., meanwhile, is eliminating triclosan in all its products by the end of the year, said spokesman Paul Fox. The ingredient was in very limited use, he said, and P&G already touts its Crest toothpaste as “100% triclosan free.”

Crest 3D White and Crest Pro-Health are the best-selling toothpastes in the U.S., followed by Total, according to research firm Mintel Group Ltd. Total uses triclosan as an antibacterial to ward off gum disease.

“Given the hazards that it has been shown to pose to public health, it really has no place in products like toothpaste,” Schade said.

In response to Bloomberg’s story, the Hong Kong Customs and Excise Department said it will explore the health effects of Total. The agency, which manages imported goods for the Chinese city, said it will investigate the report and “seek professional advice” from the local Department of Health.

Antibacterial Soap

Other companies are walking away from triclosan, including Galderma SA. For now, the skin-care company uses the chemical in one U.S. product: the Cetaphil Antibacterial Gentle Cleansing Bar. Galderma’s research division “is currently working on replacing it by an alternative ingredient,” Virginie Naigeon, a U.S. spokeswoman for the Swiss company, said in an e-mail.

Reckitt Benckiser Group Plc, the maker of Lysol and Clearasil, discontinued its last U.S. triclosan product -- a medicinal hand soap -- in February.

“We were proactive,” said Lynn Kenney, a spokeswoman for the British company. “We did it before anyone asked us to.”

Other companies have committed to removing the chemical without a firm timeline. Avon Products Inc., which relies on a direct-sales network to distribute its products, still uses triclosan in a “handful” of items, said Jennifer Vargas, a spokeswoman for the New York-based company.

The company has stopped putting it in new products and is swapping it out on a product-by-product basis because there’s “no one substitute,” she said.

“The feedback we got is what led us to the decision,” she said. “It seemed to be that customers preferred to use our product without triclosan.”

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