Your Soap Could Be Causing Heart Disease And Muscle Weakness

By Amir Khan on August 14, 2012 10:36 AM EDT

Hand Washing
Washing your hands often is a great way to prevent illness, but it may be doing more harm than good. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Washing your hands often is a great way to prevent illness, but it may be doing more harm than good. A common ingredient in soap may be causing muscle weakness and heart disease, according to a new study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The ingredient in question, triclosan, is commonly used in many antibacterial soaps and other items, such as deodorants and mouthwashes. However, researchers found that exposure to the chemical is linked to muscle impairment in humans and mice and slowed swimming in fish. This muscle weakness has the ability to contribute to heart disease and heart failure, according to the study.

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"We consider [triclosan] a high volume chemical," Dr. Isaac Pessah, study author and professor and chair of the Department of Molecular Biosciences in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, told Fox News. "Its production levels are quite high, and the levels in humans have been increasing since it was first used as an antibacterial agent in the early '70s. So the body levels in humans - including plasma, urine and breast milk - have been steadily increasing."

Researchers said it's also been found in the womb, which is particularly worrisome, according to the study.

"Early development is a time of particular vulnerability to toxic chemicals," Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, dean of global health in the department of preventive medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, told ABC News. "Minute exposures at the wrong moment in embryonic or fetal development can have devastating effects. The great complexity of early human development creates windows of vulnerability, periods of heightened sensitivity to toxic chemicals that exist only in early life and have no counterpart in adulthood."

Triclosan is escaping into the environment as well.

"The levels in the environment have been increasing as well, because it can't all be trapped in the treatment plants," Pessah said. "[Companies] try to prevent some chemicals getting out past the water treatment plants so they can dispose of them in a different way, but they can't capture all of [triclosan] because there is so much of it."

Researchers exposed cells to triclosan levels similar to the amount people come in contact with every day and found that the chemical interfered with the cell's ability to contract when stimulated, an ability called 'excitation-contraction coupling.'

"Excitation-contraction coupling is essential for muscle contraction," Pessah said. "If you interfere with that process, it can be lethal and certainly debilitating. We were very surprised that triclosan essentially impaired ECC in both cardiac muscle cells and skeletal muscle cells. It did so at relatively low concentrations and relatively quickly."

Pessah told Fox News that triclosan is not needed for antibacterial soap, and that he has stopped buying products that include it.

"When people ask me about this, I say that we've been taking great care to buy products without triclosan," he said. "Instead, buy disinfectant hand wash based in alcohol. There's no literature that says it's more useful than just soap and water. The risks definitely outweigh the benefits."

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