Greenwashing and CBC #1: Dawn Antibacterial Hand Soap

Continuing from last week with #1 on the CBC Marketplace "Lousy Labels" greenwashing list is Dawn Antibacterial Hand Soap dishwashing liquid.

As I mentioned last week, Marketplace is a 22 minute show and they did a 10-product countdown, giving them approximately 2 minutes per product, so they had to leave a lot of information out. And hey, I don't have the format restrictions, so here's a bunch more information than they could possibly fit in.

So, product claims. It's a Dawn product, which means it's marketed as a grease-cutting dish soap that's gentle on your skin. This particular Dawn product is the only one on their website which is specifically marketed as antibacterial. It has a picture of ducks and says "Dawn helps save wildlife" on the label, also the only one shown on the website with this labelling. Their Saving Wildlife page lists two US organizations for marine animal rescue, one for marine mammals and one for seabirds, which they donate money to. They also donate dish soap to wash the birds soaked in oil. (Interestingly, the US version of the website doesn't show the ducky label, even though the organizations they support are based in the US.)

Marketplace claims that Proctor & Gamble (owners of the Dawn brand) are making a big deal out of helping wildlife while at the same time putting the ingredient triclosan in their soaps, which Environment Canada has declared toxic to aquatic wildlife, and which (unnamed) environmental groups have called for to be banned. The expert also says that it washes down the drain to the wildlife and builds up in their systems.

Since Dawn's financial support toward helping save wildlife isn't in dispute, I'll go straight to the triclosan, which according to the Dawn product MSDS, makes up 0.1% of the product. (The rest of the ingredients in the MSDS look like fairly conventional liquid soap stuff.)

Triclosan is, in short, what makes many antibacterial products antibacterial. In addition to being used for its antibacterial properties in many antibacterial hand soaps, toothpastes, deodorants, shoe insoles, and fabrics, it is also used as a preservative in some non-prescription medicines, cosmetics, and other personal care products. It kills bacteria at higher concentrations, and stops them from multiplying at lower concentrations, which is how it acts as a preservative.

Environment Canada did indeed do an assessment on triclosan. The full version of the preliminary assessment was published at the end of March 2012 for a 60-day comment period. That ended 6 months ago now, but I'm not sure how long the government takes to go through the comments and issue their final report.

Some of the key findings from that report include that triclosan isn't persistent in the environment as it breaks down under UV light, but that because of the constant input from us humans washing our hands with antibacterial soap and that soap going down the drain, anything living in streams where wastewater treatment plants that can't remove triclosan discharge their treated water is constantly exposed to it. The Ecological Assessment "Exposures of Concern" speak of bioaccumulation in fish, algae, and invertebrates in areas where they're continually exposed to fresh triclosan.

The findings about birds in particular, since that is what Marketplace is implying Dawn is harming while claiming to help, show that triclosan is largely non-toxic to birds (section, Terrestrial organisms). This is, however, based on a small sample; I would guess that once a couple of tests showed low toxicity in birds, the scientists spent more of their time on detailing how much effect it had on those species that did show adverse reactions: namely, those non-photogenic algae and invertebrates mentioned above. After all, if you keep the levels below what sensitive organisms can tolerate, tolerant organisms will have no problem at all.

The fish, algae, and invertebrates showed various types of sensitivity to triclosan. The algae seems like kind of an obvious one to me, although maybe a biologist might disagree with my logic. Something that's intended to kill single-celled organisms in the home gets washed into the environment and does what to single-celled organisms out there? Kind of like pest bug killing spray also killing "good" bugs, maybe? I know that not all single-celled organisms are sensitive to the same things, and not all disease-causing organisms are sensitive to triclosan (section 2.1). Algae showed decreased biomass, which means the collection wasn't growing as fast as usual. Fish and amphibians showed breeding and developmental problems on exposure to enough triclosan.

So on the one hand, "causing harm to the very thing it's claiming to help" isn't quite a true statement, as Dawn is mostly about helping clean up birds and triclosan isn't particularly toxic to birds. On the other hand, triclosan does have toxic effects to various species in the environment, and one of the things that Environment Canada preliminary report mentioned was working with industry to phase out use of triclosan because of that.

And, on the hand that needs washing: seriously people, we don't need antibacterial soap. Some bacteria have already shown that they can develop a resistance to triclosan. When washing your hands with soap and water, you aren't killing the bacteria or viruses on your skin, you're displacing them and flushing them down the drain, and that's all you need to do.

My thoughts on this one are that Dawn should maybe have put their "saving wildlife" and ducks on their regular dish soap, not on the antibacterial one. Better still would be to stop making antibacterial soap since it's not needed for home use.

Greenwashing series:
10: Raid EarthBlends Multi-bug killer
9: Sunlight Green Clean Laundry Detergent
8: Obusforme EcoLogic Contoured pillow
7: Simple Green All-Purpose Cleaner
6: Eco Collection bath mitt
5: Vim PowerPro Naturals
4: Organic Melt ice remover
3: T-fal Natura frying pan
2: Biodegradable J Cloth
1: Dawn Antibacterial dish soap
Final thoughts

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