How Household Cleaning Products Can Be Harmful to the Environment?
August is Water Quality Month, and we would like to use this opportunity to talk about water pollution that can be caused by the use of cleaning products. Water pollution occurs when materials and/or energy are released into water beyond the water’s natural capacity to break it down, thus degrading the quality for other users. When we think of water pollution, we think of leaking oil tankers or companies releasing toxic waste into rivers or the sea. But water pollution also stems from personal use of everyday products, such as household cleaning products: when we use cleaners with dangerous ingredients, a large part of those will go down the drain, into the sewer system, wastewater treatment facilities and possibly into rivers, lakes and oceans, causing great harm. But we are even advised NOT to flush cleaning products down the drain! Therefore, for Water Quality Month we would like to point out the dangers of using regular cleaning products for the environment.
Many AspenClean customers are already aware of the direct dangers regular cleaning products can pose to human and pet health in our homes, which is why they choose all-natural cleaning products without toxins, chemicals or fragrances. However, regular cleaning products also have negative effects on flora and fauna of our planet. When people clean their homes, dishes or clothes with cleaning products containing unsafe ingredients, most of these harmful substances will wash down the drain and into our wastewater treatment system.
Most ingredients break down quickly in or soon after the wastewater treatment facilities, but unfortunately, our facilities are not equipped to filter out all the chemicals in the wastewater so that many chemicals end up our fresh and saltwater ecosystems where they are extremely dangerous to animals, plants and ultimately, to our drinking water and health. And if you are living or vacationing "off the grid" and are using a septic system, certain ingredients of regular cleaning products can kill the bacteria of your septic tank, stop the water separation and ultimately poison the surrounding waterways with untreated waste water, chemicals and toxins. Septic systems require a lot of forethought and consideration, so be sure to read up on septic safe products and which ingredients to avoid before going to your cabin!
Cleaning Products that harm the environment (click on the product for more detail):
- Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)
- Quaternary Ammonium Compounds (QUATs or QACs)
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
- Methylisothiazolinone (MI)
Our environment is already swamped with chemicals!
A 2002 study conducted by the United States Geological Survey found persistent detergent traces in 69% of streams sampled across the United States of America, and 66% contained disinfectants. Similarly, the Environmental Working Group's Tap Water Database compiled 28 million water records and collected samples from nearly 50000 water utilities, serving 280 million people through all states of the United States of America. They found more than 250 chemicals all across America’s drinking water, with more than 160 contaminants on which the federal government hasn’t set any limits on. Dozens of the other contaminants are at levels which are legal, but might still pose health risks according to scientists. 40000 water systems in America have been found with contaminants linked to cancer – that is more than 80%!
Many people blame the industry for this – but the truth is, we are all to blame. What do we do when a few drops of gasoline or diesel fall to the floor when we fill up our cars? When we are painting the house or fence and spill a bit on the ground? When we have just a little drop of a product left in a bottle and either empty it into the sink or toss the bottle in the trash without emptying it first? And last but not least: when we use cleaning products containing toxic ingredients every day? The answer is, we don’t do anything. At the very best, we try to wash it away with water. It’s just a tiny little bit, surely it won’t hurt anybody! But it’s the sheer volume of everybody doing just this that is harming our environment the most. Which is why today we would like to talk about the environmental problems that can arise from the harmful ingredients when using regular cleaning products and flushing them down the drain, and how we can avoid them.
The problem with regular cleaning products is that they contain a huge variety of chemicals. EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning researched and rated over 2000 common cleaning products from almost 200 brands and assessed the toxicity of more than 1000 ingredients used. 1000 ingredients in cleaning products, when most cleaning and even disinfection in the house can be done with vinegar, water and baking soda, in combination with essential oils for stronger cleaning and a nice scent! But our wastewater treatment facilities are not equipped to deal with these chemicals, so that a lot of them end up in our fresh water, salt water, groundwater and soil. And since it’s water quality month, we want to have a look at what those chemicals which survive wastewater treatment can do to flora and fauna around us.
So here is a list of some chemicals used in regular cleaning products that can harm our environment:
Active ingredients like Triclosan
- Found in most cleaning products labelled as “antibacterial”
- Kills bacteria, fungi and mildew, but also algae, which are a very important cornerstone in aquatic ecosystems and in the food chain
- Triclosan traces have been found in 58% of 85 streams located throughout the U.S., and even in multiple organisms such as algae, black worms, fish and even dolphins, with so far unknown consequences on the animals’ health. Lab studies link Triclosan to cancer, developmental defects, hormone disruptions and liver toxicity
- 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.
- 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.
- In most cleaning products labelled as “antibacterial”The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fact sheet on 1,4-Dioxane notes that it readily leaches through the soil and into the groundwater.
- 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.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)
- Found as a surfactant in cleaning products
- Used to loosen the dirt and grease from surfaces
- Have been detected in water, sediment, mussel, fish and even cormorant egg samples. They are highly toxic to aquatic life, causing heavy damage to fishes’ gills and destroying the mucus layer on their skins which protects them from bacteria, parasites and toxins in the surrounding water
- In the environment and through bacteria in the wastewater treatment facilities, NPE degrades to Nonylphenol (NP), which is known to mimic the hormone estrogen64 and impact the production of testosterone, having reproductive and developmental effects on rodents
- Found as a detergent in floor cleaners and other household cleaning products
- Wastewater treatment facilities can only filter out about 30% of phosphates from wastewater, so that the majority of the chemical enters our waterways
- In a recent study, goldfish exposed to phosphates in water exhibited an unusually inactive state with increased breathing as well as a secretion of mucus. In higher levels of phosphates, the fish died, suggesting that they are highly toxic and lethal to fish
- Most common in air fresheners, but also in cleaning and laundry products of all kinds
- Usually not disclosed in the list of ingredients because they are part of fragrances which are protected by trade secret law. Most fragrances contain phthalates
- Have been detected in air, drinking water, rivers and soil, and can even be found in rainwater due to their ability to migrate or leach from manufactured goods
- Some phthalates have shown to cause severe reproductive and developmental disruption, others are acutely toxic to aquatic organisms such as bacteria, algae, crustaceans, insects and even fish. Phthalates can cause infertility and reproductive problems in female fish as well as feminization of male fish, frogs and other animals
Quaternary Ammonium Compounds Cleaning Products (QUATs or QACs)
- Used as disinfectants, surfactants and fabric softeners in cleaning and laundry products
- Toxic to a lot of aquatic organisms such as fish, daphnids, algae, rotifer and microorganisms. This also includes the bacteria in wastewater treatment facilities, so that QUATs can impair their efficacy and degrade the quality of our drinking water
- Also, QUATs don’t easily degrade in the environment, so that they will build-up and cause long-lasting harm to ecosystems
Volatile Organic Compounds Cleaning Products (VOCs) such as phosphorus, nitrogen and ammonia compounds
- Found in many cleaning products of all kinds
- In waterways, VOCs cause excess growth of algae, which results in the spread of bacteria, loss of daylight vital to aquatic ecosystems, as well as a depletion of oxygen levels, killing fish and other animals
- VOCs can even lead to algal bloom, which can poison drinking waters or lakes for swimming, for example in case of the blue-green algae. The water turns green, slimy, smells bad, can’t sustain aquatic life and is not safe for drinking anymore
Methylisothiazolinone (MI) Dangers
- Found in many cleaning products including 'healthier' or 'greener' alternatives
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that Methylisothiazolinone is highly toxic to freshwater and marine organisms
- What is worse is that only one of the two compounds that make up Methylisothiazolinone is susceptible to degradation in water - and only in specific conditions
- Methylisothiazolinone has the potential to persist in our natural environment, the effect of which is yet to be assessed.
So now that we know which chemicals can cause great harm, what can we do?
As a first step, we should assess which cleaning products are really necessary. Do we really need a toilet bowl cleaner, or will a bathroom cleaner, some mild scouring powder and a bit of elbow grease do the trick? Do we really need chemicals to unclog a drain, or are household items like a long pipe cleaner or a plunger just as useful? We tend to turn to chemicals to simplify life, but it might be dangerous. For example, the use of antibacterial cleaning products, wipes or lotion might seem useful, but the truth is, in most cases we don’t need them. Unless we need sterile hands, for example for giving an insulin shot or in case of an immune system deficiency, the excess use of antibacterial products causes bacteria to develop a resistance, and our immune systems to “unlearn” how to deal with bacteria so that we get sick more badly and more often. In effect, we should only use cleaning products when we really need.
And when we do need them, we have to make sure they leave as little environmental impact as possible. In order to know if a cleaning product is dangerous to us or the environment, we should have a look at the label. Avoid products marked “Danger” or “Poison” completely, and try to reduce your use of products marked “Caution” or “Warning” as much as possible, since exposure to these products can still lead to skin and eye irritation.
On the label, we should also check the list of ingredients. Unfortunately, there are no laws in Canada or the U.S. for companies to publish all ingredients on the labels of cleaning products. Therefore it’s important to get informed before the purchase: go to EWG’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning and look for greener cleaners without harmful ingredients.
Make sure the ingredients of the cleaner are easily biodegradable and break down quickly in the wastewater treatment facilities or thereafter. For this, it’s best to look for products that are 100% natural or all-natural, and certified by an independent institution, such as EcoCert. EcoCert is an internationally recognized certification that guarantees the genuine practice of environmental respect throughout the formulation and manufacturing of a product. EcoCert has very strict requirements for the products, more stringent than other “green” labels found in North America like Ecologo and GreenSeal, which allow many ingredients that are suspected toxins, carcinogens or hormone disruptors.
Last but not least, we tend to use more of the cleaning and laundry products than strictly necessary, because using more product will clean better. But this is not the case. We should stick to the directions of use on the label and thereby minimize the amount of cleaning products ending up in our wastewater, because the effect of cleaning will not be greater by using more cleaning liquid or laundry detergent.
But I can’t save the world on my own!
Of course you can’t. Nobody can, and that is not the point of this article. If one single person changes their use of cleaning products, uses less products, less chemicals and makes sure to use only all-natural, eco-friendly cleaning solutions, the impact will be minimal. But it will be less chemicals and less harm to the environment, than it would otherwise have been. And if more people do the same, if we change our way of using cleaning products as a society, we can have a huge positive impact on our environment, cleaning our homes and making sure that flora and fauna can flourish at the same time.
In the words of Helen Keller, a former American political activist and author:
"Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."