Are Leading Brand Laundry Detergents Environmentally Friendly?
Consumers have become much more concerned about how the products they use impact the environment in recent years. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for even highly educated consumers to find out just what ingredients are in certain products, and how they might impact the environment.
Take the leading brand laundry detergents. You certainly won’t get a straight answer by looking at the ingredients label, where you typically find the following cryptic message: “Ingredients include surfactants (anionic and nonionic) and enzymes.”
We cannot provide you with specific ingredients used in Tide or other name brand laundry detergents, for a couple reasons. First of all, companies are not required by law to list their ingredients, and claim that their formulations are confidential. Secondly, the ingredients they use change periodically, whether due to reformulation or simply the use of alternative ingredients to reduce costs. However, the following list of ingredients commonly used in the leading brands, along with a description of how they impact the environment, should give you a good idea of what’s really inside:
Alkyl benzene sulfonates or ABS (also linear alkyl benzene sulfonates or LAS, linear alkyl sodium sulfonates).
A class of synthetic surfactants (usually identified as “anionic surfactants.”) ABS are very slow to biodegrade and seldom used. LAS, however, are the most common surfactants in use. During the manufacturing process, carcinogens and reproductive toxins such as benzene are released into the environment. While LAS do biodegrade, they do so slowly and are of low to moderate toxicity. LAS are synthetic. The pure compounds may cause skin irritation on prolonged contact, just like soap. Allergic reactions are rare. Because oleo-based alternatives are available, LAS should not be used.
Alkyl phenoxy polyethoxy ethanols (also nonyl phenoxy ethoxylate or nonyl phenol).
This is a general name for a group of synthetic surfactants. They are slow to biodegrade in the environment and have been implicated in chronic health problems. Researchers in England have found that in trace amounts they activate estrogen receptors in cells, which in turn alters the activity of certain genes. For example, in experiments they have been found to stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells and feminize male fish. One member of this family of chemicals is used as a common spermicide, indicating the general level of high biological toxicity associated with these compounds.
Artificial fragrances are made from petroleum. Many do not degrade in the environment, and may have toxic effects on both fish and mammals. Additionally, they often can cause allergies and skin or eye irritation.
Diethanolamines (also diethanolamine, triethanolamine and monoethanolamine).
A synthetic family of surfactants, this group of compounds is used to neutralize acids in products to make them non-irritating. Diathanolamines are slow to biodegrade and they react with natural nitrogen oxides and sodium nitrite pollutants in the atmosphere to form nitrosamines, a family ofpotent carcinogens.
A class of synthetic, phosphate-alternative compounds used to reduce calcium and magnesium hardness in water. EDTA is also used to prevent bleaching agents from becoming active before they’re immersed in water and as a foaming stabilizer. EDTA does not readily biodegrade and once introduced into the general environment can re-dissolve toxic heavy metals trapped in underwater sediments, allowing them to re-enter and re-circulate in the food chain.
Optical brighteners are a broad classification of many different synthetic chemicals that, when applied to clothing, convert UV light wavelengths to visible light, thus making laundered clothes appear “whiter.” Their inclusion in any formula does not enhance or affect the product’s performance in any way; they simply trick the eye. Optical brighteners do not readily biodegrade. They are toxic to fish when washed into the general environment and can create bacterial mutations. They can cause allergic reaction when in contact with skin that is then exposed to sunlight. Most optical brighteners are given trade names which consumers are unlikely tosee on a label.
Petroleum distillates (also naphthas).
A broad category encompassing almost every type of chemical obtained directly from the petroleum refining process. Any ingredient listed as a “petroleum distillate” or “naphtha” should be suspect as it is, firstly a synthetic and, secondly, likely to cause one or more detrimental health or environmental effects.
A key nutrient in ecosystems, phosphates are natural minerals important to the maintenance of all life. Their role in laundry detergents is to remove hard water minerals and thus increase the effectiveness of the detergents themselves. They are also a deflocculating agent; that is, they prevent dirt from settling back onto clothes during washing. While relatively non-irritating and non-toxic in the environment, they nonetheless contribute to significant eutrophication of waterways and create unbalanced ecosystems by fostering dangerously explosive marine plantgrowth. For these reasons they are banned or restricted in many states. Products containing phosphates should be considered unacceptable.
Note: The major laundry detergent manufacturers no longer use phosphates in their formulations.
Similar in chemical structure to certain plastics and acrylic compounds, these are relatively new, synthetic phosphate substitutes. Because they are recent additions to the consumer product chemical arsenal, however, their effects on human and environmental health remain largely unknown. Though tests show they are non-toxic, do not interfere with treatment plant operation and generally settle out with the sludge during water treatment, until further study and analysis are conducted, use of this ingredient is not recommended. Further, they are not biodegradable and are petroleum based.
Polyethylene glycol (also PEG).
Another type of anti-redeposition agent, PEG is a polymer made from ethylene oxide and is similar to some non-ionic detergents. Not considered toxic, it takes large doses to be lethal in animals. However, PEG is slow to degrade and is synthetic.
An alkyl ammonium chloride used as a surfactant, disinfectant and deodorant that releases formaldehyde, a potent toxin.
Xylene is a synthetic that, when reacted with sulfuric acid, creates a surfactant. Slow to biodegrade in the environment and moderately toxic.