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Students come together to reduce toxins in the environment

By educating students Pennsylvania Sea Grant is helping reduce harmful PPCPs in our waterways

By Anna Mc Cartney, Pennsylvania Sea Grant

Signs have been mounting for years that triclosan and other chemicals in pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) harm humans, wildlife and the environment.

But that has not stopped manufacturers from using them. Nor has it changed the patterns of prescribing medications to consider the impact that PPCPs have on the environment and human health. It hasn’t even changed laws to add these new pollutants for regulation by the EPA or the FDA. So products you buy can contain toxic chemicals and endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs), which are linked to cancer, birth defects, infertility and other diseases in humans and wildlife.

What has changed is the response, including voluntary steps some hospitals, states and individuals are taking, to tackle these problems. Kaiser Permanente pulled antibacterial soaps with triclosan from its 37 hospitals nationwide in 2010 and switched to traditional soaps and alcohol based hand sanitizers because of scientific evidence that triclosan is causing more harm than good. Minnesota recently banned triclosan in consumer soaps, Illinois banned plastic microbeads used in facial scrubs and other products and Vermont passed the Toxic-Free Families Act. Actions like these are the easiest, least expensive way to protect people and the environment from the harm caused by PPCPs, but they are not enough.

Every person must do his or her part to fix these problems. And that’s why after a Pennsylvania Sea Grant presentation at Mercyhurst University in 2013, students took action to change individual behavior that would have the most impact — eliminating unnecessary toxic chemicals from products they use. Together with their professor, Anne Zaphiris, and Pennsylvania Sea Grant staff, Marti Martz and Anna McCartney, they completed year one of a social change campaign they created to educate the college community about the issues and ask them to change their purchasing habits. The campaign, now in year two on the Mercyhurst campus, has been expanded to the Penn State Behrend campus to educate and involve students there.

Chemicals like triclosan used in beauty and hygiene products enter wastewater when you bathe or wash your hands. Private septic systems and municipal waste treatment plants can’t remove them. These bioactive chemicals persist in the environment; pass through water, soil and air, and bioaccumulate in the food chain. 

There is proof that this knowledge and small decisions can create significant changes. With pressure from consumer and environmental groups, Johnson & Johnson announced in 2012 that it would eliminate chemicals of concern from baby and adult products, including triclosan, parabens, phthalates and preservatives that release formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. In September 2013, Procter & Gamble announced it would eliminate triclosan and the phthalate DEP from all products by 2014 and Wal-Mart and Target are requesting changes for products they sell.

While many others have yet to take any action these college students are not waiting. They are reading labels and asking questions before making purchases. By choosing to buy products that don’t contain toxins they are setting an example for their families, friends and peers. Prevention really is the only strategy.

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