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!
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.
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.
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."
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