U. MINNESOTA (US)—Specific dioxins derived from the antibacterial agent triclosan, used in many hand soaps, deodorants, dishwashing liquids, and other consumer products, account for an increasing proportion of total dioxins found in Mississippi River sediments.

Over the last 30 years, the levels of dioxins derived from triclosan have risen by 200 to 300 percent, while levels of all the other dioxins have dropped by 73 to 90 percent. Details of the study by researchers from the University of Minnesota appear in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Triclosan was first added to commercial liquid hand soap in 1987, and by 2001 about 76 percent of commercial liquid hand soaps contained it, researchers say. About 96 percent of triclosan from consumer products is disposed of in residential drains, leading to large loads of the chemical in water entering wastewater treatment plants.

In April, the Food and Drug Administration announced it would study the safety of triclosan, which has been linked to disruptions of hormonal function and may also play a role in the evolution of bacterial resistance to antibiotics.

In papers published in 2003 and 2009, university civil engineering professor William Arnold and colleague Kristopher McNeill discovered that triclosan, when exposed to sunlight, generated a specific suite of four dioxins.

In the current study, researchers examined sediment core samples from Lake Pepin, an enlargement of the Mississippi River 120 miles downstream from the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area. The sediment cores, containing a record of pollutant accumulation in the lake for the past 50 years, were analyzed for triclosan, the four dioxins derived from triclosan, and the entire family of dioxin chemicals.

“These four dioxins only come from triclosan. They didn’t exist in Lake Pepin before triclosan was introduced,” Arnold says. “In the most current sediments, these triclosan-derived dioxins account for about 30 percent of the total dioxin mass.”

Triclosan is incompletely removed during the wastewater treatment process, and when treated wastewater is released to the environment, sunlight converts some of the triclosan (and related compounds) into dioxins. Triclosan and the dioxins ended up in Lake Pepin sediments by sticking to organic particles in the river, which then sank when they reached the calmer waters of the lake.

The toxicity of the dioxins derived from triclosan currently is not well understood, nor is the extent of their distribution in the environment at large, Arnold says.

The study was a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Minnesota, Pace Analytical (Minneapolis), the Science Museum of Minnesota and Virginia Tech.

More news from the University of Minnesota: www1.umn.edu/news/