EPA Needs Broader Approach on Antimicrobials
Rise of “Super Bugs,” Health and Environmental Effects Ignored in Agency Reviews
Washington, DC — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approval process for thousands of antimicrobial products is woefully inadequate, according to regulatory comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Despite a growing body of scientific evidence about the side-effects of these products, EPA rubberstamps registrations without duly considering an array of potential public health and environmental impacts.
Antimicrobials are now a billion dollar business with more than 5000 such products currently registered with EPA. Initially designed for hospitals and clinics, antimicrobial pesticides are today found in products ranging from household cleaners to mattresses and bedding, cosmetics, toys, toothpaste and even chopsticks. Antibacterial products are being marketed to the health conscious without firm evidence of real benefits and amid growing concern about downstream consequences.
Today ends the public comment period on EPA’s proposed efficacy test guidelines for antimicrobial pesticide products. In its comments, PEER faults the efficacy test guidelines that EPA first proposed in January as being, in essence, voluntary. More importantly, the EPA is statutorily mandated to consider environmental and human health risks when regulating these products, and yet its current approach is exceedingly narrow and overlooks many of these concerns, including that:
- The most prevalent antibacterial chemical used in consumer products (triclosan) is a likely endocrine disrupter that interferes with thyroid function. Other studies point to a correlation between overuse of these products and increased rates of allergies, asthma, and eczema;
- Growing evidence that continued overuse of antimicrobial products will create strains of bacteria, known as “superbugs,” that are immune to the effects of therapeutic antibiotics, consequently denying doctors essential tools to treat the sick, elderly and other vulnerable populations; and
- Ample data showing that antimicrobial chemicals are often washed down the drain and end up in our rivers, lakes, and streams, proving toxic to fish and other aquatic plants and wildlife.
In 2008, EPA itself conceded that antimicrobial pesticides in wide use are not adequately tested for their effects on the environment and on human health and proposed a series of new data requirements from manufacturers, but the agency never finalized these rules. “EPA now only asks whether these products ‘kill germs’ but myopically ignores what happens later,” stated New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett, a biologist and attorney formerly with EPA. “Incredibly, EPA does not even require manufacturers to submit definitive data about the environmental fate and human health effects of their own products.”
PEER is also urging EPA to limit the use of currently registered antimicrobial pesticides to clinical settings and to decline to approve any pending or future registrations for general consumer use unless and until data that demonstrate appreciable health benefits to consumers is submitted and post-use effects are adequately considered.
“Overuse of antimicrobials may unleash adverse effects which we may not be able to counteract,” said PEER Senior Counsel Paula Dinerstein. “EPA is supposed to protect the environment and that is all we are requesting them to do.”