The detergents on our household shelves may give us sparkling ‘clean’ clothes free of microbes and leave our houses smelling of mountain mists or valleys in bloom, but they aren’t as harmless as unsuspecting consumers often assume.
A University of Washington Study in 2011 found that air vented from washing machines using top-selling scented liquid laundry detergent and scented dryer sheets contained more than 25 volatile organic compounds, including 7 hazardous air pollutants.
Of these, 2 chemicals – acetaldehyde and benzene are classified by US Environmental Protection Agency as known carcinogens (that can cause cancer) for which the agency has established no safe exposure level.
By simply doing your weekly load of laundry, you may be damaging the health of your family, polluting your waterways and generating a magnitude of carbon footprints!
Threats In Your Household Detergents
Detergents are cleaning products manufactured from synthetic chemical compounds and typically contain surface active agents (surfactants), phosphate builders, bleach, whiteners, colourants and artificial fragrances.
CHEMICALS IN SURFACTANTS – According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, surfactants are toxic to aquatic life, persist in the environment and breakdown into toxic by-products. In freshwater, they can break down the protective mucus layer that coats fish, exposing them to parasites and bacteria.
Surfactants work by reducing the surface tension of water. This makes it easier for aquatic life to absorb pesticides, phenols and other pollutants. In the same way, they strip human skin of natural oils and make it prone to allergies, often aggravating skin ailments.
EFFECT ON ENDOCRINE FUNCTION – Some detergents can interfere with hormone balance, negatively affecting fertility in males and increasing the risk of breast cancer in females. Hormone impairment also contributes to an extensive range of problems including heart disease, depression and medical impairment.
EUTROPHICATION FROM PHOSPHATES – Detergents with phosphates can cause algae growth in fresh water. Since phosphorus and nitrogen are nutrients that stimulate excessive growth of algae and other aquatic vegetation, these in turn use up the oxygen available for aquatic life causing a process of eutrophication to set in, by which the freshwater aquatic ecosystem slowly dies due to continual oxygen depletion.
WHITENER ACTION- Bleach, a traditional household cleaner is a strong irritant to the eyes, nose and throat and a leading cause of poisoning.
New innovations in detergents, when they promise ‘extra whiteness’, often rely on optical brightness that trick the eye by altering ultraviolet wavelengths to make clothes look whiter. These agents are extremely toxic to marine life, decompose slowly and cause mutations in bacteria. They are also known to trigger strong allergic reactions in humans exposed to sunlight.
FRAGRANCES ARE CHEMICALS – Chemicals in fragrance additives can cause itchy, watery eyes and stinging nostrils, trigger asthma attacks and aggravate allergies.
FABRIC SOFTENERS ON YOUR SKIN – Designed to stay in clothes and not entirely rise out, chemicals in softeners linger on the clothes and therefore on your skin. Many experts say that if you can’t eat it or drink it, it shouldn’t be in contact with your skin. The skin is exceptionally permeable and absorbs substances directly into the blood stream.
The Carbon Cost of Doing Your Laundry
A single synthetic garment washed in a domestic washing machine gives off around 1900 individual fibres, which end up in our oceans.
Shorelines around the world are contaminated with nylon and acrylic, forming up to 85% of the man-made materials found around water bodies.
Ingested and inhaled fibres carry toxic chemicals. One third of the food we eat is estimated to be contaminated with this material.
Do you think about your carbon footprint when you take a long drive?
Washing and drying a 5 kg load of clothes in a washing machine every two days creates 440kg of CO2 each year.
According to the results of a study quoted in the Guardian, this is more CO2 than flying from London to Glasgow and back!
Did You Know That The Clothes From Your Dry-cleaner May Be Making Your Air Toxic?
Dry-cleaning is achieved by cleaning delicate garments in a liquid chemical solvent instead of water. The most commonly used solvent is known as perc (perchloroethylene, tetracholoroehtylene and tetrachoroethene). This is better over water based detergents because it can remove grease based stains and oil without shrinking or damaging the clothes.
According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, perc is categorised as being “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
Perc is considered toxic to the gastrointestinal system, reproductive system, reproductive system, skin, kidneys, respiratory system.
It can also be central nervous system depressant that harms the body via dermal or respiratory exposure.What is worse is that traces of toxic perc can stay in the air, even when the clothes are not being worn.
What Choice Do You Have?
The energy, natural resources and waste involved in mass producing and transporting billions of gallons of plastic-packaged, toxic laundry detergents is too significant to ignore.
You have already taken the first step to awareness. Do continue to be vigilant and contribute by ‘greening’ your laundry with making small changes to your laundry regimen.