Household cleaners are not usually thought of as pollutants. They are used inside the confines of the home to make the indoor environment safe and clean for human habitation. Many household cleaners are effective at ridding the home of dirt, germs and other microscopic, harmful organisms. However, some of the cleaners that are used to sanitize, degrease, whiten and wash clothing, surfaces, dishes and bedding are also harming our water and air. (See Reference 1) The chemicals in many cleaners are common pollutants that contribute to smog, reduce the quality of drinking water and are toxic to animals.
The Chemical Culprits
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. (See Reference 1) According to the Canadian Labour Environmental Alliance Society, dishwasher detergents are 30 to 40 percent phosphorus. (See Reference 2) 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. They whiten your clothes, remove grease from dishes and disinfect as bathroom cleaners, among other uses. Nitrogen is found in glass and surface cleaning products; this chemical is found in floor cleaners as well. (See Reference 1)
Entering the Waterways
Nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia are dangerous water contaminants in large quantities. They are rinsed down drains and flushed down toilets as families clean the house. Most pollutants are removed from the water by the waste treatment facilities before the water is returned to the rivers, streams, lakes and other waterways. However, those three household cleaning chemicals are not removed by waste treatment processes. Instead, they enter the waterways and build up, causing an accelerated growth of some types of plant life. (See Reference 3)
Chemical Effects in the Water
Ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorus are all fertilizers used in agriculture to help plants grow in controlled environments on farms. When those same chemicals enter a freshwater environment as residues of household cleaning, their levels are not controlled. The result is excessive nourishment of some types of plant life in habitats native to aquatic animals. This can lead to dense vegetation that clogs waterways, crowding out animal life and other marine plants. At the end of these plants’ chemical-accelerated life cycle, they die in large masses, decaying and depleting the oxygen in the water. Algae then grows, and the animals – freshwater shellfish, fish and others – die off as well; the die-offs cause more decay. Soon, the water is no longer suitable for drinking, cooking or bathing. (See Reference 4)
VOCs can cause health hazards by concentrating inside the household air, and when windows are raised to ventilate while cleaning, the problem goes outdoors. According to the EPA, VOCs contribute to smog, and the pollution is so severe in some areas that legislation to ban or restrict the amount of VOCs in household cleaners became necessary. (See Reference 5) The state of California’s Air Resources Board, for example, has set acceptable limits for these chemicals in the California Consumer Products Regulations. (See Reference 6)