NY court reinstates environmentalists' lawsuit that claims soap chemical could be dangerous

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Environmental activists can try to prove a chemical found in some soaps is potentially dangerous and the Food and Drug Administration is failing to regulate it, a federal appeals court said Friday.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit of Appeals in Manhattan reinstated a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defence Council against the FDA over its failure to finalize its regulation of triclosan, a chemical used in antibacterial soap, toothpaste and other consumer goods. The FDA has said it is looking into animal studies suggesting triclosan can disrupt hormone levels.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court said the council’s evidence establishes that triclosan is potentially dangerous and that at least one of its members is frequently exposed to soap containing it. The court did not reinstate the group’s claims regarding another chemical, triclocarban.

The group’s evidence shows triclosan may be harmful, that the FDA is unable to determine if it is and that the FDA’s failure to regulate lets triclosan enter the market without its safety being confirmed, the 2nd Circuit wrote.

In ruling, the appeals court noted that even the FDA concedes it is concerned about the long-term effects of triclosan exposure and tells consumers that it has no evidence that soap containing triclosan provides extra health benefits over soap and water, though it also reassures consumers that triclosan “is not currently known to be hazardous to humans.”

Government lawyers had no comment and a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defence Council said she was unable to comment.

The environmental group supported its claims by relying in part on the statements of Diana Owens, a veterinary technician who washes her hands more than 50 times a day when she is working at an animal clinic. The court said Owens worried she had a slightly increased risk of ovarian cancer and was concerned about the hormone-disrupting effects of triclosan.

A lower court judge tossed out the case, concluding that those worried about triclosan could buy antimicrobial-free soap instead and bring it to their workplace.

But the appeals court said there was no “genuine dispute that triclosan is potentially harmful,” and the environmental group had offered evidence showing triclosan has endocrine-disrupting properties, easily absorbs into the bloodstream and may contribute to the growth of cancer.