Are Household Cleaners Bad For The Environment?

Multi-purpose cleaners and other household cleaners are not usually thought of as pollutants. They are actually used indoors to make our house or apartment clean and safe for human habitation. There are cleaners to get rid of stains, to clean glass, to make metal finishes really shine, to disinfect, to rid surfaces of microscopic or harmful organisms, and many other uses! However, some of the cleaners, soaps, and detergents that are used in households to sanitize, degrease, and wash clothes are also harming our water and air! Yikes! In short, the chemicals in many of these cleaners are known pollutants that contribute to smog, reduce the general quality of drinking water, and are toxic to animals.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency names phosphorus, nitrogen, ammonia, and chemicals grouped under the term “Volatile Organic Compounds” as the worst environmental hazards in household cleaners. Beware! You could find some of these chemicals in all purpose cleaner spray bottles, multipurpose floor cleaners, and even disinfectant cleaning supplies. To be more specific, Ammonia is a multipurpose household cleaner that is found in many cleaning products that do everything from degreasing to sanitizing and removing allergens. VOCs are found in a wide range of cleaning products that either whiten clothes, remove grease from dishes, or disinfect surfaces. Nitrogen is found in glass cleaners and other surface cleaning products.

All of these chemicals (plus others) are dangerous water contaminants. But how do they get into our natural bodies of water, where they come into contact with aquatic life? Well, after using these products to clean your house, they are rinsed down drains in your sink or flushed down toilets. Even though MOST pollutants are removed from the water by treatment facilities, those three chemicals are definitely not removed in this process. They instead enter waterways, end up in the water that is returned to rivers and lakes and there they buildup.

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When these hazardous chemicals enter different bodies of water or aquatic ecosystems, their levels are not controlled. Moreover, Phosphates in laundry and dishwasher detergents have a fertilising effect. What does this mean for aquatic ecosystems? The result is an excessive nourishment of some types of plant life. This in turn leads to dense vegetation that can clog waterways. At the end of these plants’ life cycle, they die in large masses. Algae then grows at exponentially faster rates, depriving freshwater animals of oxygen in the water needed for survival, which translates into a reduced biodiversity. Soon, the water is no longer suitable for drinking, cooking or bathing.

Surfactants, on the other hand, reduce water tension and allow surfactants and all other chemicals that may be leftover from cleaning to be absorbed more easily by both plants and animals. Many other compounds can be toxic to wildlife, or affect growth and reproduction, for example, by mimicking the effects of hormones in mammals and fish.

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What about air contamination? Well, VOCs can concentrate inside the household air, causing health hazards inside your home. When windows are opened, these chemicals are then released to the environment. According to the EPA, Volatile Organic Compounds can even contribute to smog! The pollution is so severe in some areas that legislation to ban these VOCs in household cleaners became necessary. However, some household cleaners still have VOC’s on their ingredient list! This is why it’s so important to take a look at that ingredient label on your detergent and make an informed decision into which type of detergent and all purpose cleaner is the right one for you and your home.

Want our recommendation? Skip the use of regular household cleaners and opt for natural cleaners or search the web for a natural all purpose cleaner recipe. Some are skeptical about these homemade options, but try it for yourself! You might find that they are just as effective as a leading brand detergent. ;)



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* Any opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation