The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with promoting public health by ensuring the safety and efficacy of medicines and consumer products. But like most federal bureaucracies under the Obama administration, it has allowed its regulatory agenda to be influenced by activist groups. The FDA’s latest target is, of all things, antibacterial soaps, which fringe activists believe pose a variety of health and environmental threats.

Antibacterial hand soap is nearly universal and has been scientifically proven to eliminate many of the most common food-borne bacteria that can cause serious infections. Hand-washing, as every kindergartner knows, is our first line of defense against the spread of a number of diseases, and antibacterial hand soap in particular plays an important, low-cost role in promoting public health. A one-dollar bottle of soap can protect a family from salmonella, E. coli, MRSA, and other potentially fatal infectious bacteria that uncooked foods can carry by the millions.


That isn’t good enough, however, for a fringe environmental group--the National Resources Defense Council--which uses lawsuits to pursue a broad anti-chemical agenda based more in hysteria than in science. The NRDC, which also opposes flea collars, flame-retardant furniture, shampoo, and several common lawn care products, sued the FDA in 2010 to significantly tighten regulations on antibacterial hand soaps. As a result of that lawsuit, the FDA has proposed new rules that could severely limit or even eliminate consumer access to antibacterial soaps.

The proposed rule would impose unprecedented safety and efficacy testing requirements on antibacterial soaps, requiring a burden of proof stricter than that which FDA imposes even on some antibiotics. If adopted as currently proposed, the rule would likely regulate these soaps from existence, leading to an estimated increase of up to 7.5 million food-borne illnesses and tens of billions of dollars in higher health care costs.

It’s the prerogative of green groups to make ridiculous claims about helpful products. It’s an entirely different problem when the federal government caves to these groups’ radical agenda over sound science. The purported reason for FDA’s new scrutiny on handsoap is that antibacterials cause health problems, and that they aren’t very effective at actually killing bacteria. This is in spite of the fact that no scientific study has ever proved that antibacterial soaps carry any health risk.

NRDC claims that triclosan, the active ingredient in antibacterial soaps, disrupts human thyroid functioning, but that assertion is based on a shoddy study in which rats are dosed with excessive amounts of the chemical that exceed normal human exposure. And the proposed efficacy testing is over the top – as the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Angela Logomasini notes, a 2005 study “showed that the anti-microbial hand washing agents were significantly more effective in reducing bacteria than the alcohol-based handrubs and waterless handwipes.” Hence the coming increase in food-borne illness and rising health care costs cited above.   

The FDA should stop insulting the intelligence of Americans and drop its sham claims that science is driving force behind its regulatory overreach. Rather, the agency is acting with classic progressive paternalism, believing that the government has both a power and an obligation to ban any product that could even possibly cause harm--regardless of whether the product serves a useful everyday public health purpose. When presented with an opportunity to nanny, the government throws math and science out the window, inflating risks to ignore benefits.

Ignoring sound science is hardly a new concept for progressive green groups, which use the same warped priorities to oppose nuclear power, GMO foods, hydrofracking, and a multitude of other innovations that can help improve quality of life for millions of people. Now they have trained their sights on Big Hand Soap. What’s next?

The FDA, which should be the government’s greatest advocate for science, is instead one of the most frequent bureaucratic culprits. It’s time for them to start standing with science and stop caving to activist lawsuits.

Telford is senior vice president at the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity, a free-market, libertarian organization.