Bad Stuff for the Environment

Commercial cleaning products can not only harm your health, but they can have adverse affects on waterways and wildlife.  Some chemicals are always taken out of waste water by treatment plants, some  can be taken out but are expensive to do so and not always done, and some pass right on through to your local stream.  Check out below some good info on chemicals harmful to our environment.


On Phosphates, Petroleum, Chlorine, and Biodegredability:

Safer Cleaning Products
by Philip Dickey
Washington Toxics Coalition

Environmental Hazards

■ Phosphates
Phosphates are minerals that act as water softeners. Although they are very effective cleaners, phosphates also act as fertilizers. When cleaning products go down the drain, phosphates can be discharged into a river, lake, estuary, or ocean. In lakes and rivers especially, phosphates cause a rapid growth of algae, resulting in pollution of the water. Phosphates can be removed during wastewater treatment by the addition of special
chemicals, but the process is expensive. Many states, including Washington  have banned phosphates from household laundry detergents and some other cleaning products. Automatic dishwasher detergents are usually exempt from phosphate restrictions, and most major brands contain phosphates, but some phosphate-free alternatives are available. Hand dishwashing liquids do not contain phosphates.

■ Petroleum-based Ingredients
The key ingredients in most cleaners are the detergents themselves, called surfactants. Most surfactants are petroleum-based. Some products advertise ingredients made from coconut or other vegetable oils. Although it is possible to make some kinds of surfactants entirely without petroleum, most surfactants, even those that claim to be made from vegetable sources, are at least partially petroleum-based. The primary advantage of vegetable oils is that they are renewable resources. Petroleum is a limited resource whose extraction and refining produce pollution. This pollution may be partially offset by pesticide use and other impacts of producing vegetable oils. Driving
a long distance in your car to get petroleum-free products could cancel any advantage they offer. 


Some Suggestions for Safer Products

■ Biodegradability
Many ingredients in cleaning products are toxic to fish and other animals that live in the water. After you use a cleaning product and wash it down the kitchen sink, most of these ingredients should break down into harmless substances during waste treatment. Actually, most modern cleaning products are designed to biodegrade relatively quickly.
Are products advertised as biodegradable any better for the environment than those that don’t make such a claim? Probably not. There really isn’t any reliable way for you as a consumer to evaluate the biodegradability of a product. Surfactants made from vegetable oil are not necessarily more biodegradable than those made from petroleum. However, there is one type of petroleum-based surfactant sometimes used in cleaning products that has rather poor biodegradability. It is called nonylphenol ethoxylate. You will rarely see this ingredient listed on cleaners, even if it is present. But if you do see it listed, you might want to avoid the product. Nonylphenol ethoxylates, and their relatives octylphenol ethoxylates, are widely used in hair colors,
shampoos, and hair styling aids. They are often identified as nonoxynol or octoxynol. Nonoxynol-9 is also commonly used as a spermicide.

■ The Chlorine Issue
The use of chlorine compounds in consumer products usually does not justify the risks involved. Particularly dangerous are compounds called organochlorines, which are generally toxic and persistent in the environment. To my knowledge, few household cleaners sold today contain organochlorines as ingredients. Many household cleaners do contain chlorine bleach. Chlorine bleach, or sodium hypochlorite, is not an organochlorine. It is hazardous, however, because it is reactive and a lung and eye irritant. Products containing chlorine bleach usually contain trace
amounts of organochlorines that cause cancer in animals and are expected to do so in humans. Small amounts of organochlorines are also formed whenever chlorine bleach is used, although most of the bleach does break down into salt water. So, should you give up your chlorine bleach? Not necessarily, but responsible use of bleach means minimal use. Other types of bleach are available that are a bit less hazardous, but none of them can be used to disinfect. (For more information on disinfectants, see our companion fact sheet entitled Antimicrobials, Who Needs Them?) It makes sense to avoid cleaning products with chlorine bleach in them. They make it hard to limit your chlorine use. Disinfection, if needed, can be done separately.

On APEs and Plastics:


From the National Geographic Green Guide

    After bubbly cleaning liquids disappear down our drains, they are treated along with sewage and other waste water at municipal treatment plants, then discharged into nearby waterways. Most ingredients in chemical cleaners break down into harmless substances during treatment or soon afterward. Others, however, do not, threatening water quality or fish and other wildlife. In a May 2002 study of contaminants in stream water samples across the country, the U.S. Geological Survey found persistent detergent metabolites in 69% of streams tested. Sixty-six percent contained disinfectants.
The detergent metabolites the USGS detected were members of a class of chemicals called alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). APEs, which include nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates, are surfactants, or "surface active agents" that are key to detergents' effectiveness. They are added to some laundry detergents, disinfectants, laundry stain removers, and citrus cleaner/degreasers. When discharged in municipal waste water, nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates break down into nonylphenol and octylphenol, which are more toxic and do not readily biodegrade in soil and water. APEs have been shown to mimic the hormone estrogen, and their presence in water may be harming the reproduction and survival of salmon and other fish. For example, in Britain, researcher John Sumpter discovered that male fish exposed to APEs in rivers were producing female egg-yolk proteins. APE pollution may be threatening fish in the U.S. as well, for octylphenol and nonylphenol were the detergent metabolites that the USGS detected in 69% of streams tested here. Such ubiquity may not bode well for humans, either: the APE p-nonylphenol has also caused estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells to proliferate in test tubes. 

    Another environmental concern with cleaning products is that many use chemicals that are petroleum-based, contributing to the depletion of this non-renewable resource and increasing our nation's dependence on imported oil.
The plastic bottles used to package cleaning products pose another environmental problem by contributing to the mounds of solid waste that must be landfilled, incinerated or, in not enough cases, recycled. Most cleaners are bottled in high-density polyethylene (HDPE, denoted by the #2 inside the recycling triangle) or polyethylene terephthalate (PETE, #1) which are accepted for recycling in a growing number of communities. However, some are bottled in polyvinyl chloride (PVC, #3). PVC, otherwise known as vinyl, is made from cancer-causing chemicals such as vinyl chloride, and it forms as a byproduct a potent carcinogen, dioxin, during production and incineration. As a final insult, most sanitation departments do not accept PVC for recycling; less than 1% of all PVC is recycled each year.

On water, NPEs, and other laundry chemicals: 


From the National Geographic Green Guide

Switching from liquid detergents to powders is another easy way to reduce your water burden. "Laundry liquids contain a significant amount of water, presently 70 to 80 percent, soon to be reduced to 40 to 60 percent in double and triple compact concentrates," says Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology at Seventh Generation. "It costs energy and packaging to bring this water to the consumer," he says; that's unnecessary when your machine will add water on its own.  

Although phosphates, still used in dishwashing detergents and known to promote algae growth that in turn suffocates aquatic life, have been phased out of laundry detergents, health risks remain with other laundry chemicals, most notably nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). NPEs are surfactants (chemicals that help other ingredients penetrate dirt and grime) that belong to a class of hormone-disrupting compounds called alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). Unfortunately, "It's added to lots of cleaning agents," says Jason Marshall, lab manager at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute. 

Popular because they're inexpensive, petroleum-derived NPEs break down in the environment into nonylphenol, which harms the reproductive abilities and survival of fish. They also aren't easily removed by wastewater-treatment facilities; Sierra Club has detected NPEs in 61 percent of U.S. streams tested. Linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS), a common surfactant used instead of or in conjunction with NPEs and often listed on ingredients as "anionic surfactants," doesn't fare much better environmentally. Like phosphates, LAS can deprive water of oxygen and kill aquatic life.
Fortunately, NPEs are slowly being phased out in the U.S., thanks to European Union efforts to remove them, says Marshall. "Companies don't want to make four different products with four different formulations," he says.
Besides surfactants, petroleum-based synthetic dyes, fragrances and other chemicals are often added to detergents for aesthetic appeal. Synthetic fragrances may contain hormone-disrupting phthalates, which prevent the scent from dissipating but also provoke asthma and other respiratory problems (see "Body Burdened" A study published online at Environmental Health Perspectives this March suggested that phthalates also may be responsible for increased obesity in men. Optical brighteners, fluorescent chemicals used to make clothing appear cleaner, can rub off fabrics onto skin and cause rashes.
Detergents aren't the only beasts to contend with. In 2005, chlorine-based bleaches caused 19,581 poisonings in U.S. children under 6 years of age, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. After disappearing down drains, chlorine reacts with environmental organic matter, creating harmful organochlorines such as dioxin. In 2000, testing found high levels of dioxin in San Francisco Bay fed in part by bleach from residential laundry use.
Also, those seemingly innocuous floral fabric softeners emit, among other chemicals, neurotoxic toluene and trimethylbenzene, styrene (a possible carcinogen), the respiratory irritants phenol and xylene, and thymol, which can cause abdominal distress, according to a study in the May 2000 issue of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health.


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