Sustainable Living | Sep 16, 2019 1:50:28 PM

Harmful Effects of Cleaning Products on Our Water

Public awareness of the harmful effects of cleaning products on human health and the environment is growing thanks to campaigning by bodies such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and responsible brands that are committed to making a real difference. Water is an important intersection for human and environmental health which is why we're bringing the harmful effects of cleaning products on our water to the forefront. Read on to learn about how chemical water pollution affects you and what you can do about it.

How Do Cleaning Products Harm the Environment?

Earlier this year the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced that international commitments to reduce chemical hazards by 2020 will not be met. These findings were part of the second Global Chemicals Outlook, an update on the original effort to bring together scientific, technical and socioeconomic information essential for sound international chemical pollution management. This research is important for determining the harmful effects of cleaning products on human health, and also because hazardous chemicals also have adverse effects on aquatic environments and the creatures that call them home.



The natural environment is swamped with chemicals from various sources. They are indirectly released into the environment as byproducts from the production of goods, or more directly released as ingredients of consumer products such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and household cleaners.

All cleaning products are made of chemicals, including natural cleaning ones. For example, a commonly used alternative cleaning agent is bicarbonate soda or baking soda, which is a compound comprised of natural chemicals. The environmental dangers of cleaning products arise when chemicals used are harmful, bioaccumulate or don't degrade.

Chemicals can be absorbed and ingested by animals and this can have detrimental health effects on physiology, particularly if concentrations are high. Their minute nature means that the harmful effect of chemicals on our water is difficult to see. However, the environmental and health impacts are too significant to ignore.



The UNEP's second Global Chemicals Outlook has predicted that the chemical industry will double by 2030. The current estimated burden of disease from selected chemicals is 1.6 million lives in 2016 (as reported by the World Health Organization) with chemical pollution also threatening a range of species and their ecosystems.

It's easy to feel like you can't make a difference as a consumer, but each person, business, or government can play a part. The start of a movement towards less chemical pollution is more awareness of the harmful effects of cleaning products. You can make yourself more aware of some of the more harmful ingredients commonly found in cleaning products below.

What Chemicals in Cleaning Products are the Most Harmful to Aquatic Environments?


Triclosan is used in many consumer products from cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and household cleaners primarily as a disinfectant.

The molecular structure of triclosan resembles several estrogens which are vital for hormonal functions in animals. Hormones are a function of the endocrine system and are vital for proper growth, metabolism and fertility function. A breakdown of this system can lead to developmental issues, birth defects and cancer.

Studies have shown triclosan to be disruptive to the endocrine systems in amphibians based on concentrations that would be realistically found in environments. Greater concentrations have also been shown to disrupt endocrine systems other organisms such as algae, black worms, fish and even dolphins.

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act states that triclosan is unlikely to biomagnify in aquatic food webs as it can be metabolized by organisms. However, studies continue to report the presence of triclosan in the environment which hints at the sheer amount of triclosan being continually released.


In the cleaning industry, 1,4-Dioxane is used to manufacture surfactants such as ethoxylated alcohol and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). It can be released into the environment as a byproduct of this process. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fact sheet on 1,4-Dioxane notes that it readily leaches through the soil and into the groundwater. Though it does not bioaccumulate in the food chain, it does not readily biodegrade in water or soil which means that it can persist in the environment.  


The Environmental Working Group's (EWG) 'Guide to Healthy Cleaning' reports 1,4-Dioxane as a confirmed animal carcinogen. However, the effect of 1,4-Dioxane on animal health is overshadowed by threats to human health. According to Environment Canada, 1,4-Dioxane meets the criteria for persistence in the environment. The levels of 1,4-Dioxane detected in the environment in Canada is not considered to be an immediate risk to human health. However, unmitigated use could change this.

The EWG's test of tap water throughout the United States found that public water systems in 27 states contained levels of 1,4-Dioxane that the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) considers would marginally increase cancer risk. The EPA set this limit at 0.35 parts per billion, however, the Canadian Government has proposed a maximum acceptable concentration much higher at 50 parts per billion.  

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QUATs)

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QUATs) are a group of substances that are used in household cleaning products as disinfectants. QUATs are used for disinfecting because they are biocides. This means that they are designed to kill organisms, and continue to do so when they are released into the environment. EWG's 'Guide to Healthy Cleaning' considers QUATs to be highly toxic to aquatic life.  

Methylisothiazolinine (MI)

Methylisothiazolinone is used in home cleaning products primarily as a preservative, including “healthier” alternatives. It is released into our environment directly through consumer products and as a byproduct when it is used as an antimicrobial agent in industrial production of various products.

Methylisothiazolinone is moderately to highly acutely toxic in oral, dermal, eye irritation, dermal irritation, and inhalation acute toxicity studies. It is also emerging as common allergen and asthmagen. A lot of the human health risk is likely to occur through exposure during use, which is reason enough to avoid products containing methylisothazolinone. However, its adverse effects extend to the natural environment.

The EPA considers Methylisothiazolinone as highly toxic to freshwater and marine organisms. Only one of the two compounds that make up Methylisothiazolinone is susceptible to degradation in water - and only in specific conditions. This means that it has the potential to persist in our natural environment, the effect of which is yet to be assessed.

How to Find Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products

Aquatic ecosystems are fragile and are especially susceptible to toxins such as those found in conventional cleaning products, and these synthetic chemicals can persist in our environment for a long time. If these harmful chemicals don't degrade and are continually added into our environment, then the likelihood of finding them in our drinking water increases which pose further health risks.



To minimize water pollution, look for natural cleaning products with biodegradable ingredients or products that are 'septic safe'. These products will break down in septic tanks without affecting bacteria and will also break down in the environment much faster than synthetics. It's also helpful to consult consumer guides such as the EWG's 'Guide to Healthy Cleaning' to help inform your purchases.

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