Water is an essential resource for the Earth and its inhabitants. It is vital to our survival and the health of the environment, making it paramount that we maintain its cleanliness. Water pollution occurs when materials, substances, and energy outside of its natural capacity are released into it and break down. Unfortunately, this isn’t only caused by leaky oil tanks or companies releasing toxic waste into the rivers and seas. Water pollution also comes from everyday household products by washing them down the drain. Eventually, they end up in rivers, lakes, and oceans. It’s not advisable to flush cleaning products down the drain, but most of the time, it’s unavoidable. To start working on this problem, we must make sure we use the right products that cause minimal harm to the oceans.
How To Spot Cleaning Products That Can Have a Negative Impact on Waterways
Wastewater treatment facilities aren’t equipped to filter out all chemicals entering the sewer system. Many of them end up in fresh and saltwater ecosystems, where they are harmful to animal and plant life, as well as humans. Often, there are heavy rains, and when pipes overflow, the excess water is directed away from the treatment plants straight into waterways.
What to Look for on the Labels
With cleaning products, it’s important to check the ingredients label. Traditional domestic cleaning products include a wide variety of chemicals. There are over 1000 of them that can be easily replaced with vinegar, water, baking soda, and some essential oils (for a nice scent). The specific ingredients you should look out for on products when shopping include:
- Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs);
- Quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATs and QACs);
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs);
- Methylisothiazolinone (MI).
When Buying Cleaning Products
When buying a cleaning product, the first step is to ask yourself: “Do I really need that?”
DIY replacements or eco-friendly alternatives can be just as effective as chemical cleaning products and, at the same time, don’t cause the same damage. Corrosive drain cleaners, oven cleaners, and acidic toilet bowl cleaners are the most hazardous cleaning products. In most cases, bacteria learn to build immunity to these products, making them ineffective.
The second step (after deciding that you do need that product) is to ensure that the chemical you’re using has a minimal negative impact on the environment. Build the habit of checking product labels before bringing them home. Avoid products marked with “danger” or “poison”. Avoid or reduce your use of antibacterial products. Besides having a toxic effect on marine life, they also contribute to the growing antimicrobial resistance in bacteria.
Currently, there are no laws requiring manufacturers to list all the ingredients they use in a product on the label. If a product doesn’t list all of its ingredients, the manufacturer most likely has something to hide. However, using different online guides made for that purpose is very helpful. It’s also important to choose products with ingredients that are easily biodegradable and break down quickly. Look for products that are 100 per cent natural or “all-natural” and certified by an independent institution (e.g. EcoCert). They require a full ingredient list on the label.
Stick to the Instructions on the Label
You may be tempted to use more of the product, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll clean better.
Another organisation devoted to safeguarding human health and the environment is the Environmental Working Group (EWG). According to them, only 6 per cent of household kitchen cleaning products are safe for the environment. They have a “Guide to Healthy Cleaning”, which lists over 2000 products that contain harmful ingredients. Some of them not only cause water pollution but have also been linked to cancers, asthma, developmental and reproductive toxicity.
Beware that even products labelled “all-natural” and “green” often contain harmful chemicals. Occasionally, natural cleaning products may perform worse than traditional cleaning products. When buying cleaning products, ask yourself: “What happens to the floor cleaning chemicals when I empty the bucket of solution down the drain?” and “What happens to the chemicals in the bath and shower cleaner after I rinse away the residue?”
Why are These Products Bad for the Oceans?
Here’s a breakdown of how the above-mentioned ingredients are harmful to the environment:
Triclosan is found in most cleaning products labelled as “antibacterial”. It kills bacteria, fungi and mildew, but also algae. Algae are an important cornerstone in aquatic ecosystems and in the food chain. Its consequences on animal health so far are unknown, but lab studies suggest it’s linked to cancer, developmental defects, hormone dysfunctions, and liver toxicity.
1,4-dioxane is used to manufacture surfactants in the cleaning industry, such as ethoxylated alcohol and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES). It can be released into the environment as a by-product. It doesn’t biodegrade in water and persists in the environment. The chemical readily reaches through the soil into groundwater. It’s labelled as “antibacterial”. 1,4-dioxane has been confirmed as an animal carcinogen and poses many threats to human health.
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs)
Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are a surfactant in cleaning products used to loosen dirt and grease from surfaces. It’s been detected in water, fish sediment, mussel, and even cormorant egg samples. These compounds are highly toxic to aquatic life because they cause damage to fish gills and destroy the mucus layer on the skin, which protects them from bacteria, parasites, and toxins. When released into wastewater, NPEs degrade to nonylphenol. This compound is known to mimic a certain hormone which impacts the production of testosterone and has reproductive and developmental effects on rodents.
Phosphates are found as a detergent in floor cleaners and other household cleaning products. Wastewater treatment facilities can only filter 30 per cent of them, so the majority of the chemicals enter the waterways. In a study, goldfish exposed to phosphates exhibited unusually inactive behaviour with increased breathing and secretion of mucus. At higher levels, the fish died, which shows that the compound is highly toxic and lethal to aquatic life.
Phthalates are most common in air refreshers, but they’re also present in cleaning and laundry products. They’re usually not listed on the label because of trade secret laws. However, most fragrances contain phthalates. These chemicals have been detected in air, drinking water, rivers, and soil. They have even been found in rainwater due to their ability to travel or leach from manufactured products. They have been shown to cause reproductive and developmental disruption and be toxic to aquatic organisms (such as bacteria, algae, crustaceans, insects, and fish). Phthalates can cause infertility and reproductive problems in female fish as well as feminisation of male fish, frogs, and other animals.
Quaternary ammonium compounds (QUATs and QACs)
QUATs and QACs are commonly found in disinfectants, fabric softeners, cleaning and laundry products – but they’re bad news for aquatic life. Fish, dolphins, algae, rotifers and microorganisms are all at risk from these compounds, and wastewater treatment systems can be affected too, leading to poorer drinking water quality. Worst of all, QUATs don’t easily break down in the environment, so they can stick around and cause lasting damage to ecosystems.
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include phosphorus, nitrogen, and ammonia compounds. They’re found in all kinds of cleaning products. In water, they cause excessive growth of algae, resulting in the spread of bacteria and loss of daylight vital for the proper function of organisms in aquatic systems. Such algal bloom can poison drinking water and lakes, making them unfit for swimming. When this happens, the water turns green, slimy, smells bad, and can’t sustain aquatic life anymore. It also causes depletion of oxygen levels, kills fish and other animals.
MI’s a highly toxic compound that’s found in many cleaning products, even those labelled as “green”. Its damaging effects on freshwater and marine organisms are well documented, and only one of the two compounds that make up the chemical can degrade in water, and only under specific conditions. Its potential environmental consequences are yet to be fully assessed.
Bleach and ammonia
Separately, these chemicals produce fumes with a high acute toxicity to eyes, nose, throat and lungs. They are dangerous for people with asthma or lung issues. When used together, they produce a toxic gas that can cause serious lung damage. If they’re that dangerous for humans, imagine the harm they do to wildlife.
Products that create suds like liquid soap and laundry detergent
In addition to 1,4-dioxane, they often also contain diethanolamine (DEA), triethanolamine (TEA), sodium laureth sulphate, PEG compounds, and other known carcinogens linked to organ toxicity. They cause acute and long-term health issues and are a huge health hazard to the environment. When used in sinks, bathtubs, or showers, these cleaners can pose a threat to water quality and wildlife by draining into the environment. Sudsing agents in liquid soaps and detergents pose a huge threat to drinking water supply.
Education is key to reversing environmental degradation and promoting sustainability. It’s essential to identify the household products and practises that harm our ecosystem and replace them with safer alternatives. Individual responsibility is important, but collective action is necessary to make meaningful progress towards sustainability. Taking small steps starting from our homes and combining our efforts can make a real difference.