The environmental impact of cleaning agents

Chemical cleaning agents such as window washers, drain cleaners and anti-bacterial sprays are often viewed by homeowners as beneficial products - ridding our homes of dirt, debris, harmful bacteria and other contaminants. Unfortunately, some of the main chemical components within these cleaning agents have a detrimental impact on our environment.

As mentioned in the introduction to this guide, the Environmental Protection Agency regards chemicals such as phosphorous, nitrogen, ammonia and all other chemicals classed as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as the most hazardous chemical agents to affect our environment. Unfortunately, the disinfectant and bleaching capabilities of these chemical compounds means that they have been incorporated within the majority of household cleaning products; from dishwasher tablets and bathroom cleaners to laundry detergents, floor cleaners and all-purpose cleaning sprays.

In recent years, environmental conservationists have begun to raise public awareness to the damage that these VOCs have upon natural aquatic reserves. This is due to the fact that the harmful contaminants within these chemical cleaning agents are washed down our sinks and toilets on a daily basis and end up being sent into major waterways.

Although all household water passes through waste treatment facilities, which separate harmful chemicals from the water before it returns to these natural aquatic reserves, certain harmful contaminants including nitrogen, phosphorous and ammonia are not efficiently removed by waste treatment processes and end up contaminating the plant life, wildlife and fish which rely upon our nation's rivers, streams, lakes and waterways for survival.

Ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorous are also known fertilisers which accelerate plant growth. As such, when uncontrolled levels of these substances enter local rivers, lakes and streams they cause dense vegetation to grow amidst aquatic habitats which clogs the waterways used by these animals and marine life for survival. Moreover, due to their chemically accelerated life cycle, these enlarged plants quickly die and proceed to decay; thereby depleting the water's oxygen stores and resulting in the growth of harmful algal blooms. When certain types of algae are introduced to freshwater areas they can generate natural toxins, an excessive accumulation of scum, foams and the discolouration of water. In this manner, harmful algal blooms have been linked with large-scale marine mortalities, shellfish poisonings and fundamental damage to other organisms and marine-based wildlife.

Another dangerous aspect of household cleaning products is the presence of certain chemical agents known as alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEs). Marketed as 'surface active agents', these hazardous chemicals are liberally added to laundry detergents, disinfectants, stain removers and citrus cleaners due to their effectiveness at removing stubborn stains. Unfortunately, these chemicals breakdown into more harmful contaminants known as nonylphenol and octyphenol, which are non-biodegradable in soil and water.

Investigating the effect of APE exposure on marine life, British researcher Professor John Sumpter recently discovered that male fish within 28 British rivers exposed to these APEs, have begun to produce female egg-yolk proteins. This distorted hormone severely harms the reproduction and survival of salmon and other fish across Britain.

Even more worryingly, Sumpter explained the link between fish and humans: "Fish and men, for example, both have two testes - the sperm-producing organs - and anything that can disrupt semen-making in fish is likely to have a similar impact on men."

Given that previous studies have also highlighted how APEs can cause oestrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells to multiply in test tubes, these independent studies both highlight how the presence of chemical cleaning agents within natural waterways can have a devastating effect on the long term health of both humans, fish and all manner of local wildlife.

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