GLOBE-Net - Grade 12 students Rachel Brown and Katie Van der Sloot were not looking to create a furor over a common chemical found in toothpaste, mouthwash and anti-bacterial soap.

But when the inquiring young Medicine Hat, Alberta high school students noticed a flood of anti-bacterial soap in their community following the 2009 H1N1 scare, they probed deeper. They applied scientific process to measure the impact of the anti-bacterial products on the environment.

Their award-winning science project inadvertently provided added public clout to Health Canada's ongoing research into the effects of the chemical triclosan on the human body and Environment Canada's study on its effect on the environment. Triclosan is a microbe-fighting ingredient that, among other uses, fights gingivitis.

And many of the products, such as mouthwash and toothpaste, are flushed down the sink into the local water system. And that's where the two young scientists discovered the problem.

By analyzing their water, the two students discovered triclosan-resistant bacteria. A 2006 study from the Santa Clara Basin Watershed Management Initiative reports that "...triclosan is acutely and chronically toxic to aquatic organisms." Algae have proved to be the most sensitive organisms, but fish and invertebrates also experience adverse impacts following acute or chronic exposures to low levels of triclosan.

Health Canada has been probing the effects of triclosan on the body's endocrine system and whether the antibacterial agent contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance. Preliminary research findings released by Health Canada and Environment Canada in late March concluded that the concentration of triclosan found in these products aren't enough to be harmful to humans - but are harmful to the environment.

The federal government has now asked companies to voluntarily remove triclosan from some personal-care products and to find a substitute ingredient. A Health Canada news release says after further study, "risk management actions" may be proposed under Canada's Chemical Action Plan.

Triclosan is the latest chemical to come under the microscope of Canada's Chemical Management Plan (CMP). If placed on the List of Toxic Substances it will be another in a growing inventory of toxic chemicals removed from store shelves and the Canadian environment.

In a highly publicized 2010 decision, the government banned bisphenol A - a chemical used to make plastic in baby and water bottles. The chemical has been linked to heart disease, certain cancers and other health problems.

These high profile bans are examples of the scientific-based work that is being conducted by scientists and researchers at the Canadian government agency.

On December 8, 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, along with the Ministers of the Environment and Health, unveiled Canada's new $300 million Chemicals Management Plan. Its objective was to bring all existing federal programs together into a single science-based strategy and provide protection against hazardous chemicals.

The agency then compiled a list of 23,000 existing chemicals used in commerce to manufacture hundreds of goods, from medicines to computers, fabrics and fuels. Each required analysis.
Of that, 4,300 needed further attention and approximately 200 of them were identified as high priorities for action.

These 200 high priority chemicals were divided into 12 batches of 10 to 20 chemicals each and were targeted for screening assessments. That screening and assessment process has been underway since 2006.

Since that time, the CMP has been slowly but steadily eliminating toxic substances from the Canadian environment. The CMP is using the mandatory information gathering provisions of section 71 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA, 1999) to gather information deemed required for improved decision-making.

And while the high profile chemicals such as triclosan and bisphenol A have made headlines, it's the other work of the agency that is establishing its reputation as a science-based and reliable regulator.
Some of the other chemicals that have been added to the List of Toxic Substances include the lesser known thiourea, 1, 3-butadiene and oxirane.

The CMP's work, however, has not been without its detractors.

In December, 2011, the Commissioner on Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott Vaughan, stated in his 2011 report that enforcement of key regulations is not happening. The Commissioner blames a lack of training and key information gathering.

The Canadian Environmental Law Association says it's clear "there should be a comprehensive and robust compliance and enforcement regime in place to control this small number of high priority toxic substances to ensure protection of human health and the environment."

The Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association has called for an alignment of Canadian policies and regulations with the US and more time for manufacturers to source materials if substances are banned.

What few people dispute, however, is the amount of work and the quality of scientific analysis that is underway at the federal department. From a list of mostly unknown chemicals, the CMP is slowly building an inventory of banned substances based on solid science and community and market consultation.

In the process, it is protecting Canadians from immediate or potential exposure, protecting their health and the environment we live in.

Rachel Brown and Katie Van der Sloot would be proud.

Further scientific studies on triclosan can be found here and here