So there I am watching a rerun of “House”-- the medical drama about the irascible pill-popping diagnostician played by Hugh Laurie -- when I find myself yelling at the television: “The soap! It’s the soap!”
Let me explain. It’s not often that I can solve a medical mystery before all the geniuses on the show, but this case was right up my alley. The episode comes from late in the final season of the show’s eight-year run, when the writers were probably starting to get kind of desperate for fresh ideas. (All writers can relate.) The pathologist at House’s hospital, Dr. Treiber, starts to cut off his own face during an autopsy, and House suspects he may be suffering from Cotard delusion, a rare mental disorder where people think they are dead. But, as in all “House” episodes, that initial diagnosis is wrong, and the situation becomes much more complicated and life-threatening, with total organ shutdown a distinct possibility even before the second commercial break.
House’s team comes up with a long list of potential diagnoses, many related to the fact that Dr. Treiber drank a lot of caffeinated drinks and so might be psychotic. But that still doesn’t explain all the symptoms. Something -- something in the environment in which he works -- must have infected or poisoned him, and must be the culprit, they deduce. Dr. Chase, the hunky Australian doc, runs biopsies on all the brains in the morgue, but nothing explains the illness. What else could it be? Everything in the morgue is so clean.
Wait, perhaps too clean?
And that’s when I started shouting at the TV. My boyfriend gave me a strange look and diagnosed me with watching too many “House” reruns.
But sure enough, Dr. Chase turns to the soap dispenser, which contains an antibacterial ingredient called triclosan (“triCLOsan” in that charming Australian accent). Attentive readers of OnEarth may recall when this reporter wrote, in “Antibacterial Soaps: Safe Suds or Snake Oil?”, about how triclosan -- an endocrine disruptor -- is very bad for you, and bad for the environment, too.
In Dr. Treiber’s case, the combination of energy drinks and the continual use of triclosan soap was enough (in TV hospital land, anyway) to cause a myxedema coma -- a severe form of hypothyroidism. Once the doctors flushed the triclosan from his system, he was fine.
Now in real life, there are no studies or cases of people lapsing into life-threatening comas because of antibacterial soap. There are, however, convincing animal studies that show the ingredient is messing with thyroid function, and given that three-quarters of the U.S. population over the age of five have measurable triclosan levels in their urine, it may be affecting us, too. While there are few human studies on the damaging effects of the chemical, endocrine disruptors in general can cause early-onset puberty, reduced fertility, obesity, and cancer. In mice, it can impair the functioning of their muscles. All of this is worrisome -- but even more so because there is already so much triclosan in our environment: more than one million pounds of the stuff are produced in the U.S. every year. Once limited to hospital scrubs, a clean-is-better marketing scheme has made it an ingredient in more than half of all hand soaps. Some large companies, recognizing the concerns, have phased out triclosan, including Johnson & Johnson and Kaiser Permanente. But the FDA has failed to rule on the safety of the chemical in consumer products for 38 years, leaving buyers to beware (triclosan is always listed on the label, so it’s at least easy to avoid).
Triclosan won’t cause you to slice your own head off, but -- especially since it’s no more effective than plain soap -- this chemical certainly isn’t good for you, either. The same can be said, I’m afraid, of too many “House” reruns.
Image: Jimmy Jack Kane