Can Washing Dishes Really Harm Your Health?

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June 04, 2005 | 31,950 views

By Richard Mesquita, AquaMD

In case you missed it, a study by the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University showed that washing dishes by hand and using an antibacterial dishwashing liquid soap, has unintended consequences. Specifically, the chemical triclosan contained in the soap was found to interact with chlorinated water to produce significant amounts of chloroform.

Chloroform is part of a family of four disinfection byproducts known as Trihalomethanes (TTHMs). When water companies add chlorine to water -- to kill or prevent bacteria from growing in it -- TTHMs interact with organic matter in their distribution system to cause disinfection byproducts.

Typically, TTHMs enter your body thru inhalation. So if you are washing dishes by hand, you are naturally inhaling water vapors that carry TTHMs. This study found the amount of chloroform in water increased significantly when it came in contact with antibacterial soap containing Triclosan.

And, if that wasn't enough of a problem, it turns out triclosan has its own concerns.

What is Triclosan?

Triclosan is a chemical that's been used since the 1960s because of its antibacterial properties. It's an active ingredient in many household products:

  1. Detergents
  2. Dishwashing liquids
  3. Soaps
  4. Deodorants
  5. Cosmetics
  1. Lotions
  2. Anti-microbial creams
  3. Toothpastes
  4. Body washes

It's also added to plastics, polymers and textiles to give them antibacterial properties.

A little-known fact about triclosan: When this chemical comes in contact with your skin, it stays there for many hours. That's far different than plain soap: Once it's rinsed off, it really is off.

Triclosan is a type of chlorophenol. Chemicals containing chlorophenol are known as powerful pesticides, which means they are very good at killing things like insects and small rodents. That's why triclosan is added to antibacterial soap, detergents and other products: To kill any bacteria they come in contact with.

Unfortunately, common sense tells you, when you add chemicals designed to kill things to consumer products, you are going to have trouble. And in fact, many consumers complain about skin rashes and other irritations when using products containing chlorophenols. Chlorophenols are linked to cancers too.

It's also believed small amounts of dioxins and dibenzofurans (very toxic substances) can be created when triclosan is manufactured. If these harmful substances are created, they are also added along with triclosan to all those consumer products I listed earlier.

Since triclosan is found in such a wide range of consumer goods, it has become very prevalent in our rivers and streams, as well as the aquatic life in our waterways. In fact, triclosan has also been found in mother's breast milk, likely the result of extensive exposure to products containing it.

What Can You do to Protect Yourself?

Please don't fool yourself into thinking that you can tell your water is safe by the way it looks, tastes or smells.

Some contaminants in water are so harmful that they are measured in "parts per million" or "parts per billion." In other words, just a drop of these poisons added to gallons and gallons of water can be very harmful.

Just installing a filter to purify your drinking water may not be enough. You could still be exposed to contaminated water when you:

  1. Shower or bathe
  2. Wash your hands
  3. Wash laundry
  4. Rinse fruits and vegetables
  5. Wash dishes, glasses and other utensils

Related Articles:

The Dangers of Dishwashing

Antibacterial Soaps Popularity May be Spreading Resistant Bacteria

Infectious Disease Expert Warns of Dangers of Anti-Bacterial Soaps and Antibiotics