Federal scientists are reviewing the safety of a key ingredient in some anti-bacterial soap, hand sanitizers, toothpaste and deodorant.
In a briefing Monday, scientists working with the Chemicals Management Plan said they are studying triclosan and will produce a draft opinion on the chemical next spring, for public feedback.
Triclosan is an agent added to a growing number of liquid soaps, cosmetics, lotions, creams, household products and even toys as a way to kill bacteria.
But some environmental and health advocates fear the chemical may interfere with thyroid function, promote resistant strains of bacteria or create dangerous byproducts.
The Canadian Medical Association has called for a ban, saying the benefits of anti-bacterial products are minimal compared to regular washing with soap. And the risks are unknown because of the lack of conclusive studies.
"Anti-bacterial products containing anti-microbial agents are increasingly being marketed to Canadians for personal and household use despite a lack of evidence for additional benefit and serious concerns about the potential for increased bacterial resistance," the CMA wrote in a letter to Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq last year.
The concerns have been around for more than a decade, but it's only in the past few years that governments have put the chemical under closer scrutiny.
After their draft study on the chemical's environmental and health effects, Health Canada and Environment Canada will allow 60 days of public comment before they decide whether action is required.
They can choose to step up their monitoring, restrict its use, or even ban it outright.
The Chemicals Management Plan was handed more than half a billion dollars on Monday to continue its work for the next five years. Ms. Aglukkaq and Environment Minister Peter Kent say the top priorities are assessing the safety of plastics and researching substances such as bisphenol A, flame retardants and chemicals suspected of affecting hormones. The government will also finance a study of the long-term effects of exposure to environmental chemicals on infants, children and pregnant women, government documents say.
The government had initially invested $300-million in 2006, but that funding has now run out. The $508-million announced Monday will last for five years, and will not come at the expense of any other government programs, Mr. Kent said.
"The government understands that fiscal restraint has to be a strategic tool, not a blunt instrument," he told a conference.
The management plan screens new chemical products for their safety, but also goes back in time to look at the safety of older manufactured products.
That's because some older products were made with chemicals that are now banned in Canada.
Scientists and industry involved in the plan monitor and regulate chemicals in clothing, food, cosmetics, drugs, pesticides and other products – and they've won widespread praise for their work.
Government documents say it was the Chemicals Management Plan that allowed Canada to be the first country in the world to take action on bisphenol A in baby bottles.
The plan also isolated 22 toxic substances in cosmetics.
The strategy has won praise from Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence, who has written extensively about toxins in consumer products.
The decision to grant the Chemicals Management Plan long-term funding is a "good move," he said.
The plan has been largely successful, he added, except that it has not yet confronted the concerns about triclosan. Until now.
The Canadian Press