The Globe and Mail reports that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently banned the sale of antibacterial ingredients from soaps. Manufacturers have one year to reformulate their products to exclude compounds such as triclosan and triclocarbon.
Although marketed for the purpose, these ingredients have never been shown to be more effective than plain soap in stopping the spread of germs.
However, the most interesting aspect of the decision is that the ingredients in question have not been definitively proven harmful to people. Some studies, e.g., in animal models, suggest the potential for harm but conclusive evidence for harm in people has not been produced.
With consumer products, the US approach is typically permissive. That is, consumer products are allowed on the market and only withdrawn in the event that they are proven harmful.
This strategy contrasts with the precautionary approach, on which consumer products are assumed unsafe until evidence shows otherwise. It seems that the FDA has opted for precaution in this instance: It opted for the ban because producers of the soaps were unable to demonstrate safety within a given timeframe.
This affair illustrates what may be called the dilemma of progress. When regulators take a permissive approach, they risk exposing the public to novel harms. When they take a precautionary approach, they risk depriving the public of access to beneficial goods.
For reasons currently best known to itself, the FDA has switched to a precautionary strategy in this instance. Did it do the right thing? Should Canadian regulators follow suit?