Friday, December 10, 2010

Laundry Detergents and Pesticides - Contain Similarly Eco-Toxic Surfactants

Surfactants Used to Eliminate Pest Bird Populations

If you click on the above, you'll see a research paper from 1970 entitled, Surfactants as Blackbird Stressing Agents.   "Stressing Agent" - what a nondescript way to say, "This stuff kills".  How can cleaning and personal care product makers continue to use surfactants in their formulations when studies like the above have been known by the industry for over 50 years?  

Quoting from the report, some of the highlights:

Ground Tests
1.  "The concept of using surfactants as lethal bird-control agents appears to have originated in late 1958 at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife.  Biologist Dan L. Campbell, then assigned to the Center, noted that wild and penned blackbirds continued to bathe in available open water even during cold weather, and he theorized that exposure of wetting-agent solutions (surfactants) near roosting areas might result in the death of bathing birds through chilling or freezing."

2. "Further testing of Bollengier's technique was conducted in 1966 at a Kentucky roost, but this time surfactant solutions were used and placement of floodlights was changed (Garner, 1966).  About 20,000 birds were killed in 2 nights, with a total of 21.5 minutes of actual spraying during four drives.

3. "A different ground-application technique was used by Carley (1966).  Floodlights were used to attract birds driven through a curtain of vertical strings down which flowed wetting-agent solution.  An estimated 80,000 to 90,000 starlings were killed in three field trials in holly orchards."

Even back when these tests took place,  it was recommended to use surfactants that were the least eco-toxic (least effect on aquatic life) and LES (Linear Alcohol Ethoxylate; still one of the top three detergent surfactants in use today) was deemed appropriate for use by these researchers.  This despite the fact that their own research confirmed 96 hour LC50 levels on rainbow trout, channel catfish, and Bluegill at anywhere between 3-7 ppm.  
Many studies have confirmed surfactant levels in waste water treatment plant (WWTP) influent and river sediment at much higher levels - anywhere from around these levels in influent waste water to around 300mg/l  in sediment below WWTP's.  Unless you are willing to sacrifice the life of 50% of the population, the use of a LC50 standard is woefully inappropriate.  The perilous decline of aquatic populations worldwide would warrant the necessity of setting NOEC10 as maximum allowable eco-toxicity readings (No Observable Effect Concentrations, in 90% of the population).   For many aquatic life species, this would be closer to 0.01 mg/L or less. 

Aerial Spray Tests
4. "The next aircraft used was a B-26 modified for use as an aerial tanker in forest-fire fighting and capable of delivering its 1,000 gallon load over a 1-acre area.  Initial test drops of 2.0 and 3.0 percent detergent solutions were made at the Moody roost.  Although the dense vegetation precluded a systematic sampling of mortality, biologists estimated a kill of several thousand birds from the two drops.  Survival of caged sunfish in the test plot did not differ significantly from that of caged fish in a control area.  The same aircraft then was used in the Arkansas roost where drops of 1.0 and 0.2 percent detergent solutions and applications of water, were made.  The seven detergent drops, three water drops, and post-drop rainfall killed an estimated 78,000 blackbirds and starlings.  Over 20,000 birds were killed as a result of one of the surfactant drops.
In both the Moody and Arkansas tests, residual mortality was noted.  Additional birds died after contact with water through rainfall, bathing, or aerial water applications subsequent to surfactant application."

According to the conclusions reached in this report, the birds died of cold weather and rain after exposure to surfactants, surfactants that in the aerial spraying were used in very low concentrations, as low as 0.2%.   Concentrations of surfactants found in your laundry detergent will likely range somewhere between 25 and 50%, perhaps even higher in some liquid detergent formulas.

Surfactants Are So Dangerous,  Monsanto Won't Use It In Pesticide 

Look at this Monsanto  (click) Material Safety Data Sheet for Rodeo (a top selling herbicide) and under "Ecological Information" you will find the following:
96-hr LC50 Bluegill:  >1,000 mg/l, practically Nontoxic
96-hr LC50 Trout:     >1,000 mg/l, practically Nontoxic
48-hr EC50 Daphna       930 mg/l  practically Nontoxic

The above eco-safely claim is amazing because we thought all pesticides (including all herbicides), contained surfactants and it is impossible to get "safe" eco-toxic numbers like the above with their inclusion.  Well,  the above readings may well be correct since Monsanto (and Dow Agrochemicals) excludes surfactant in this particular formulation, instead they instruct users to add the surfactants themselves. 
The US Department of Agriculture commissioned a study (click) and the first line of this report reads:
"Rodeo is an aqueous solution of the isopropyl amine salt of glyphosate.  The manufacturer recommends use of a nonionic surfactant with all applications of Rodeo to improve efficacy."

It seems even chemical companies attempt to stay clear of the responsibility of spreading toxic surfactants.  They prefer that the user bears this burden.   The report further goes on to say surfactants are 50 times more eco-toxic than glyphosate, the stated "active agent".  How effective are a pesticide's "active agents" absent the use of surfactants?    Other pesticides like the best selling "Round Up" contain about 15% surfactants in their formulation.

Do You Mistakenly Consider "Inert" Chemicals as Safer Than "Active" Chemicals?

The stated purpose of a surfactant's inclusion in a pesticide formulation is to help "disperse" or "spread" the toxic liquid compound over a larger area and are often described as "inert" chemicals in pesticide labeling.   Many of us perhaps presume if a chemical is described as being "inert", it is somehow less harmful than a chemical described as "active".   It seems, however for the formulators of chemical products like pesticides and laundry detergent, this is not the case - surfactants in pesticides are considered "inert" while surfactants in laundry detergents are considered "active" (cleaning) agents.   Whether a chemical is labeled as "inert" or "active" really depends on why a chemist or company included that chemical in the formulation and labeled as such by the chemist or company for "informational" purposes only.   Don't assume a chemical is either safe or harmful by the use of the words "inert" or "active" in chemical categorizations used by manufacturers.  

Whether the surfactant is found in a pesticide or laundry detergent, all surfactants are toxic for human health and the health of Earth's ecology.    Again, surfactants are found in all cleaning products and nearly all personal care products.    Surfactants are everywhere.  For manufacturers of these products, surfactants are a god send, it simplifies the manufacturing process, it boosts profitability.   For users and the environment, surfactants are a nightmare.

For the Sake of Our Future, Tell Your Detergent Maker to Stop Using Surfactants 

We have evidence from as early as 1958 showing researchers knew about the poisonous nature of surfactants and that it was tested on several occasions and found to be lethal for birds.   In concentrations as little as 0.2%, surfactants wiped out significant flocks of them.   The concentration of surfactant(s) found in your current laundry detergents are likely to be anywhere from 25% to over 50%.  
Even chemical company don't want to use it in a pesticide formulation.    How in the world did seemingly reputable companies like P&G, Unilever, Henkel, Seventh Generation and all the rest conclude it was OK as a cleaning agent in our laundry detergents?

It is mind boggling that this information has not been made public, detergent makers have not been held accountable for releasing so much of this toxin into our environment for over such a long period of time.
Don't you think we should have been informed?

Enough is enough and we need to switch to surfactant-free formulations for not only our laundry cleaners but other cleaning products as well.   Personal care product makers should also be made to do the same. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Congratulations to Earth Justice and All

An Important Breakthrough - Cleaning Product Manufacturers Are Forced to Reveal Ingredients

You are perhaps not aware that a ruling was made in the lawsuit that was filed at the beginning of 2009. Earth Justice, a non-profit law firm, filed a suit in the State of New York on the behalf of the Sierra Club, Women's Voice For the Earth, American  Lung Association in New York, Riverkeep, and Environmental Advocates of New York to get 4 major cleaning product manufacturers to provide ingredient list for the products they sell.  New York is the only state having such a law.  Until recently, very few companies provided any product lists of any meaning.  

Since nothing concerning the progress of the lawsuit could be found over the Internet, I contacted Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and the Women's Voices for the Earth to see if an update was available.   All three e-mailed back and all three had different responses.   The person who wrote back from the Sierra club was not aware of the lawsuit I had referred to, Earthjustice said they had a "wonderful victory" and Women's Voices for the Earth stated, "The lawsuit was dismissed for lack of standing, but the NY Department of Environmental Conservation has decided to implement the law."

Looking over the press release put out by Earthjustice, the following is what seemed to have happened.  A hearing was held in September and the judge presiding over the case came out with a very tentative decision.   He basically said he couldn't judge on the merits of the lawsuit and suggested the defendants (cleaning products producers) had to get together with the plaintiffs (environmental and health groups) and work out a compromise.   Which, at the time didn't seem like much of a victory at all.   The meeting between the plaintiffs and defendants was held in October.   Sometime during this period, health and environmental groups got New York's Department of Environmental Conservation to enforce disclosure for products offered in New York.   As a result, for the first time on P&G's home page, we can now find relatively complete ingredient lists for products such as Tide detergent.   I found them this morning and took a quick look.  Did you know Tide comes in 48 different formulations?  
While I haven't checked yet, I'm sure the other 3 defendants, Colgate-Palmolive, Church and Dwight,  and Reckitt-Benckiser have or will soon have ingredient information posted as well.  Either that or they'll have to stop selling their products in New York.

The Significance of the Ruling, As I See It

Perhaps now that companies are declaring which surfactant they actually employ in detergent formulas, environmental groups and consumers can check these ingredients more carefully and begin to express concerns in a louder and more united voice.    Since surfactants represent the biggest eco-toxin produced in the largest amount, environmental groups and consumers have to rally on getting the detergent makers to stop including this chemical compound in their formulation.    Detergent companies know how to do this, they are just not willing to do so. 
Environmental groups should come together and concentrate their efforts on eliminating the use of the three biggest surfactants, LAS, AE and AS in one single product - laundry detergent, and  not allow the use of any other type of surfactant until detergent makers can clearly demonstrate these substitutes are truly safe (which is impossible).  For any proposed substitute ingredient(s), they must be required to demonstrate its safety for both aquatic life and human health.   
Currently, most consumers and environmental groups are using a shotgun approach in attacking a myriad of different cleaning products and a myriad of dangerous substances like "artificial fragrances", phthalates", "endocrine disruptors", "bleaches" and so on.   A less complicated and easier way would be to start with the biggest pollution threat and work your way down the list.  As emphasized many times before in this blog, surfactants are the biggest eco-toxins by far, produced in much larger quantities than any other single pollutant and dumped in  unsustainable huge amounts into our waters.    Start with the one ingredient  no cleaning product company wants to talk about, start with surfactants. 
If we can get the detergent manufacturers to stop using surfactants, producers of other cleaning and personal care products will have to follow the lead and, they will begin to spend R&D on truly safer formulations because they will understand that consumers finally understand and can't be fooled any longer.    Remember what our grandparents always taught us?  "You can fool some of the people all the time...." You remember the rest.   Let's prove this saying is still true.   After 60 years of fooling us all, it is time detergent producers are made to tell us the truth.  It is time for the environmental groups to come together and focus first on the chemical compound that has done the most damage to our health and the environment.  It is time to get rid of surfactants in our household laundry detergents. 

Thursday, December 2, 2010

World Heath Organization (WHO) and Report on Surfactants

In 1996, the World Health Organization published a report on effects of surfactants on health and the environment.    It is important to go over this 14 year-old document because our waters are in much worse shape today.  

The report was compiled by over 20 experts from both the public and private sectors.  Here's a summary of what was found concerning LAS and eco-toxicity.

Amounts of Surfactants Found In Various Water Bodies

Wastewater                         1-10        mg/L
Bio Treated Effluents            0.05 - 0.1 mg/L
Perc.Filter Effluents              0.05 - 0.6 mg/L
effluents below WWTP        0.005 - 0.05 mg/L
Downstream                        0.01   mg/L
River Sediment                    1-10  mg/L
Highly Polluted Sed.             <100 mg/L
Estuarine Waters                  0.001 - 0.01 mg/L
Offshore Marine                  0.001 - 0.002 mg/L

Most Toxic LC50 Levels Reported for Several Fish Species

Brown Trout                               0.1 mg/L                                                
Rainbow Trout                            0.36 mg/L
Goldfish                                      8.5  mg/L
Bluegill                                        0.72 mg/L
Fathead Minnows                        0.4  mg/L
Ayu                                            0.53 mg/L
Flounder                                  < 1.0 mg/L
Mosbled sole (newly hatched)     0.05 - 0.1 mg/L
Olive Flounder (5 days old)        <0.1 mg/L

These are just a few of the fish that have been studied, the report lists findings for many other species as well.   In both the effluent and in river sediment samplings, the levels found hold serious consequences for several of the species, namely brown trout, rainbow trout, sole and flounder exposed in waterways containing the amounts indicated.   At least 50% of the population would die within either 48 or 96 hours depending on which parameter was chosen.    Fish died of suffocation as the LAS spread over their gills, not allowing enough oxygen through. 

These findings of extremely high levels of surfactants in river sediment has been reported in other research as well.  Only in the past few years, has this become a topic of concern, mainly in Europe.   While most surfactants including LAS will biodegrade in aerobic conditions,  they will either biodegrade very slowly or not at all in anaerobic states, such as in the mud of river banks or bottoms.    During times of heavy rains or storms, river sediment is often mixed back into the water, potentially exposing any aquatic life to large amounts of this extremely toxic substance.  Unexplained fish kills occur in both fresh water and ocean shores and often happens after a rain storm.   The reason for the fish kill is usually said to be unknown or explained as a sudden depletion of oxygen in the water or exposure to an unidentified pollutant.   The people who are put in charge of investigating fish kills surely take sediment readings, right?  Or do they?

While the WHO report summary indicated maximum levels of LAS at <100 mg/L,  glancing at the list provided in the report, a couple of locations showed levels as high as 300mg/L.  The WHO report also stated that LAS is considered to be in a "steady state" mode in the environment, with no LAS accumulations.   This is baffling. If effluent readings indicated the amount of LAS was less than 1 mg/L, how could levels of 300 times this amount have been found in sediment if it wasn't accumulating?

Even The Makers and Users Admit Surfactants Are Extremely Eco-Toxic

The data in the WHO report can be found in industrial supported studies as well.  Proponents of surfactant use,(surfactant producers, detergent makers,  soap and detergent associations and research groups such as HERA) never deny surfactants are extremely eco-toxic.   They always print the same eco-toxic numbers, they just never explain it.     Nevertheless, these proponents will say surfactants are safe and consistently use the following three arguments:
       1.  Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTP) takes out 95-99% of all surfactants
       2.  LAS and other commonly used surfactants quickly biodegrade
       3.  The trace amounts of LAS found in waterways do not effect aquatic life

The above argument by the proponents and the overwhelming consensus that surfactants are indispensable in the formulation of an effective laundry detergent, has been enough to persuade regulators not to ban its use, at least up until now.

What Surfactant Support Research Never Mention

Pro-surfactant use reports rarely, if ever mention that perhaps outside of the most advanced industrial zones, Europe, US,  and a few Asian countries, most countries don't have that many advanced wastewater treatment plants.  Brazil for example estimates that 90% of household wastewater does not go through wastewater treatment systems at all.  And, as P&G points out, 60% of Indian housewives still do their laundry by hand, presumably much of this directly in rivers. 

In addition, the reports never tells us that wastewater treatment plants can not handle all the water when it rains.  According to the European Chemical Agency, about 20% of wastewater never makes it to these plants.   This is likely true in other countries as well. 

The third point is how many waste water treatment plants actually operate at full efficiency?   Considering all of this, does the 95-99% removal of LAS and surfactants at WWTP's really present the correct picture of the amounts of surfactants that get into our waterways?

As for "quickly biodegrades", this is another point that must be questioned.  Proponents of surfactants always say this, yet independent field studies often finds this is not true.  In the best of conditions, LAS appears to undergo primary degradations (where the surfactant loses its main "surfactancy" characteristics) in three or four days.   In worse cases (winter cold water conditions), LAS appears not to biodegrade at all. 
The main issue however is, surfactants are released into our waterways on a daily basis therefore the fish are exposed to constant, critical chronic doses.   While these doses may not be enough to kill the fish immediately, research shows exposure to LAS in quanitites much less than LC50 levels, do and are effecting fish.   Gill damage is found, they swim more slowly and eradically and they become less active in mating, thus potentially lessening the number of offspring and population of the specie.  

The only reason surfactants have not been banned by regulatory agencies is the strong lobbying done by the industry and explanations that surfactants are the only way to make an effective cleaning product.

Someone once pointed out whenever an industry is required by government authorities to make a change, the industries always go throught the same act:  First,  they argue that the technology needed to make the change doesn't exist, second that the money required to make the change will bankrupt them, and lastly, they make the change.

If we are to have any chance of getting our fresh water and oceans back to a sustainable state, the change must start by banning the use of surfactants in laundry detergent.  There is a much safer, much more sustainable formula in existence, the technology, knowhow, low cost and availability of resources already proven by a small but successful business in Japan.   The detergent companies do not have to lose any money, except perhaps that which they've put into plants to produce detergent surfactants.    By banning surfactants for use in detergent formulations, we can decrease surfactant use around the world by nearly half, and it will send a clear message to other producers of surfactant-based cleaning products that they too will have to clean up their act.   If there is anyone out there who cares enough, please at least talk with your retailers and let them know.  Its clear that household and personal care product producers will not do anything unless a large number of consumers begin to demand this change. 


Sunday, November 28, 2010

What's in the Water You're Drinking?


"What's in the water you're drinking"?   You might jokingly say to someone who's acting particularly giddy.
That's the question one researcher here in Japan has been asking himself  for nearly 50 years.   Like many others, what he has found lately, is not particularly good news.

Most of us realize what we are drinking from our taps is not the same water we were drinking 50 years ago.
We know it is now filled with chemicals and prescription drugs.   These are the sources of contaminates that is found in newborns and in all of us.  It certainly isn't acceptable that babies come into the world already filled with 200 different man made chemicals and more recently, recycled pharmacueticals.    We know through what we drink and eat today, we are exposing future generations to the pollution our generation has created.

The water we drink is so bad it has led to the creation of a multi-billion dollar bottled water industry.  This is another source of  garbage in our oceans, adding to the pollution problem.  50 years ago, the thought that anyone could make money in bottling and selling water was absurd, now many consider it absurd to drink anything but bottled water.  As a result, we have thousands of square kilometers of the ocean covered with plastic bottles.  We have created another major pollution problem.  Many of man's solutions to man's problems are truly idiotic.  

Chemical pollution of our waters does not only effect the human population, it effects our entire life support system, our planet Earth.  The chemicals we dump down the drain on a daily basis is found throughout Earth's water system, and even in trace amounts, effects the populations of nearly all life in our waters.   There has been a serious depletion of large fish in our oceans, once considered an abundant source of food for Earth's growing population.   Marine specialists estimate that in the last 50 years as much as 90% of the large fish have disappeared.  While most point the finger of blame on commercial fishing, one must also take into consideration how chemical pollutants have effected natural mating patterns resulting in fewer offspring and fewer survivors.   It is very likely, this along with commercial fishing, are the biggest contributors to the decline in both fresh water and the seas.  

While the decrease in our food supply is of major concern, even a bigger threat is how this effects the delicate balance of our ocean's ecology.   Does anyone think the ocean can survive without the life found in them?   Does anyone believe the Earth can survive without a healthy ocean?   Of course not.   It is not just global warming that is a threat, it is also the survival of a healthy water system, both our fresh water and our ocean.  If the ocean doesn't survive, mankind will not survive.

In order to give aquatic life a fighting chance to come back, we not only need to seriously limit the over exploitation of commercial fishing companies, we also need to begin cutting back on the release of toxic chemicals into our waterways.   While environmental organizations around the world have found some success in slowing the destructive practices of commercial fishing, there has been virtually no voice in stopping destructive chemicals from entering the ocean.  In fact, year after year the amounts of toxic cleaning chemicals entering our freshwater and the ocean continue to increase.   What can we do?


What is the biggest chemical toxin entering our waterways?   Surfactants - the surfactants found in all our household and personal care products.   Every time you wash clothes, mop down your floors, wash your car, clean your windows, do your dishes, you are releasing surfactants into the environment.   Every time you shave, brush your teeth, shampoo your hair, surfactants are washed down the drain.  

Chemical companies produce about 13 million metric tons of surfactants a year and half of this goes into laundry detergents.

Nearly everyone knows about DDT which was banned for use in the early 1970's.   DDT was bad and it was the right decision for regulators to ban it.   The eco-toxicity for DDT was even worse than surfactants.  However, even at its peak, annual production only reached 80,000 metric tons.   The release of DDT into the environment was puny compared to the release of surfactants through the use of today's laundry detergents.  We are dumping about 6.5 million metric tons of surfactants every year through the practice of washing our clothes.

Surfactants may be less toxic than DDT for water life, barely.   Surfactants are deadlier in the water than arsenic, nearly twice so.  Cleaning product manufacturers have been including this stuff in all their cleaning products for the past 60 years.   It is not a coincidence that in this span of time, the quality of the world's waterways has decreased as use of surfactants grew.  Why isn't this creating more public outrage?   Surfactants have been poisoning our water supplies for the last 60 years and the only people who seem to know this are the producers and major users, who seem disinclined to bring this topic up for discussion. 

Independent, scientific research can be found on the Internet confirming the levels of surfactants found in our waters.   The research also shows the level of surfactants found in nearly all waters around significant human populations are already too high for aquatic life to be sustainable.   It is only in research sponsored by the surfactant makers and its users that continues to insist the use of surfactants in our cleaning products is safe.   The environmental agencies that give their OK, rely heavily on industrial supported data to make their decisions.   Why?  Perhaps the money spent on these papers make these reports appear very formidable and scientific compared to the research put out by independent university and environmental groups or perhaps the regulators feel since the products have been around for such a long time and  sold by such reputable companies, there is really no sense to panic now.  Perhaps the regulators believe these same companies will be able to come out with a "safer" surfactant, something they have not been able to do in over 70 years of operations.  


Well, someone already has.  Its this guy who has researched water for the past 50 years.  He and his small team, realized there was a problem with the surfactants used in cleaning products years ago.   It took his lab about 10 years to come up with a way to get clothes clean without killing fish,  the first and only surfactant-free laundry "detergent"*.   

This man and his company challenged the conventional wisdom in the cleaning products industry.   The accepted axiom is,  "an effective cleaning product can not be made without using a surfactant.   The surfactant is the cleaning agent and a product can not be considered a soap, detergent or cleaner without it."   The industry is wrong and has been wrong for only about the last 4,500 years or so, from when soap was first invented.   "There is more ways than one to kill a bird"*,   and use of surfactants is not the only way to get clothes clean.   There is a way to get clothes clean and save the fish and this person has the product, a product that has been sold here in Japan for the last 5 years or so.  It is time to give this product a try, it is time we make a major move to get surfactants out of our laundry detergents.  Its time we give aquatic life a chance to fight back. 

*The word "detergent" has to be in quotes because many people will say the word "surfactant" and "detergent" are actually the same thing.   In fact, looking at the US EPA's Design for the Environment page, they include the following warning; "By nature, surfactants are often toxic to aquatic organisms because the properties that improve surfactancy also tend to increase toxicity".   If you substitute the word "surfactancy" with "detergency", you will better understand the meaning of this sentence.

"There is more than one way to kill a bird" - For those who know the history of surfactants, you have probably run into a paper presented at the 1970 "Proceedings of the 4th Vertebrate Pest Conference"
Titled, "Surfactants as Blackbird Stressing Agents".   This research discovered that surfactants are pretty good at killing blackbirds.  This should tell you why all insecticides, pesticides and herbicides contain surfactants.  Our everyday, household cleaning products shouldn't.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Which is the Worse Eco-Disaster, the Gulf Oil Spill or Laundry Detergent?

Did you know that all laundry detergents contain one ingredient that is more eco-toxic than arsenic?

Did you know on a world-wide basis, by simply using today's laundry detergents, we are pouring around 6 million metric tons of this ingredient down our drains every year?   This is 10 times the 4.1 million barrels of oil that was spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.   Each and every year!

Massive news coverage of the oil spill and the amount of public outrage over the extent of the damage done in the Gulf has forced BP to take responsibility.   BP's payment of fines will help defer some of the financial cost in the effort to clean up the mess.  Unfortunately, the diversity, population and health of the aquatic life in the gulf will never recover. 

One wonders how many aquatic species were wiped out forever from their exposure to a mixture of crude oil and even more toxic dispersant used by BP to break up the visible oil slicks.    A dispersant doesn't magically make the crude oil go away, it merely gets it off the ocean surface so the slick is no longer visible to the naked eye.  The oil sinks below the surface to form huge "clouds of toxins" in the ocean.  Any aquatic life caught up in this "cloud" is killed.   The oil rig explosion was accidental,  BP's decision to use dispersants to get the oil off the surface of the ocean was not and perhaps in the minds of many environmentalists, criminal.   (google: "Gulf Oil Threatens an Underwater Rain Forest - TIME" )

The active ingredients used in a despersant is the same substance that is found in your home laundry detergent.   They are chemical compounds known as "surfactants".   There is no need to try and figure out exactly which surfactant is being used, all surfactants are extremely eco-toxic.  

Nearly everyone in the world is aware of the ecological damage in the Gulf.  Hardly anyone is aware of the damage being caused to all the water on Earth by the continual use of today's detergents.  Why?

Few consumers know what surfactants are.  If they recognize this word, they may know it merely as the compound that actually gets the laundry clean.    Outside the surfactant industry and big users, few know how truly eco-toxic this substance is.  The people who know, don't talk about it.   Would you talk about a product your company sells on such a massive scale that it is actually poisoning the entire planet's water eco-system?    Would you be proud to say 44 million barrels of this substance was sold and used in laundry detergent last year? 

How to Identify the Surfactants Contained in the Products You Use

Up until 10 to 20 years ago, few detergent makers made public the ingredients included in their detergent formulations.   Due to increasing pressure from the public, companies are slowly revealing this information.  The companies who make ingredient lists available will identify surfactants by various terms.  These include generic descriptions such as  "active surface agent", "wetting agent", "plant-based soap",  and "cleaning agent".    Others may use chemical compound names such as "linear alkylbenzene sulphate", "alcohol Ester sulphate" or "alcohol ethoxylates".   The identification of the specific surfactant compound is complicated by the fact that nearly 40,000 different surfactants have been registered for commercial purposes, most of these for other industrial uses.   The one thing that is clear is all surfactants are eco-toxic.  In very small qualities they kill and effect the life of aquatic species.

Current Detergents do not Warrant any Environmental Endorsements

Government regulatory agencies such as the US EPA have found surfactants to be problematic for years.
Despite this, the EPA currently allows certain detergent makers to use the "Design for the Environment" logo on their packaging.  The EPA knows surfactants are very toxic.  They write, "By nature, surfactants are often toxic to aquatic organisms because the properties that improve surfactancy also tend to increase toxicity".   In other words, the better your detergent cleans, the more toxic it is.   The question to be asked is, has the EPA found any surfactant that can be considered safe for aquatic life?   The answer is no.  
The EPA perhaps allows the usage in an attempt to identify "less toxic" products.   However, does the term "less toxic"  even apply when trying to rate such a toxic substance as surfactants?  Currently it is used this way; Surfactant B  has a "no effect toxicity" rating of 1 part per billion therefore it is less toxic than Surfactant A, rated at 2 parts per 100 million.    Field studies have already confirmed much higher levels than these in many rivers, lakes and even out in the ocean, strongly indicating a very dire future for aquatic life.  

We can find surfactants in the sediment of the Mississippi river bed where levels as high as 20mg/l (20ppm) have been recorded.   We are seeing it in China where Lake Dian researchers are finding it as high as 0.2 ppm, and we are seeing it 10 kilometers off the coast of Japan where levels of 0.01 ppm have been found.  Research is indicating that for some surfactants including the one most widely used, levels as low as 0.005ppm, will have effects on some aquatic species, including their ability to reproduce.

In light of the alarming decline in both fresh water and ocean fish populations, and, findings of massive mutations of frogs and different species of fresh water fish,  it is imperative that higher safety standards be set on chemicals that are allowed for use in everyday household cleaners.  It is the duty of environmental agencies such as the US EPA and the European Environmental Commission to immediately set these standards.   They can no longer rely on the companies benefiting from the sales and use of surfactants to be nearly their sole source of data on this subject, and, they should not be persuaded by the industry's argument that surfactants are necessary in the formulation of an effective laundry detergent.   Surfactants are not necessary and large detergent makers are capable of coming up with safer products with currently available alternative ingredients.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Studies Since the 1960's Confirm Surfactants' Toxicity to Marine Life

Detergent Makers Have Known about Dangers of Surfactants for 50 Years -

And they've done nothing.  Is there any other single industry that has done more to harm water ecology than the laundry detergent industry?   World estimates for surfactant production is somewhere around 13 million metric tons a year, half going into laundry detergents.  That's 14 billion pounds of surfactants down the drain, every year.  That's roughly enough to fill 2,650 olympic-sized pools.   Put those pools together and it would stretch a little over 82 miles.   All down the drain or directly into rivers.  Thank goodness we have all those waste water treatment plants working full time to get rid of the stuff.  But wait, if they do such a good job, why is that surfactants can be found in nearly all of the waterways in the world?    Could it be that only the most efficient waste water plants can actually get 99% of the surfactants out is as often claimed by surfactant producers and users, and there really aren't that many efficient plants around?  Or could it be storm water run offs?  Or could it be the millions of people in under-developed countries that still wash directly in the rivers?   I saw that 60% of Indians still wash directly in the rivers.  I saw that in P&G's newest annual report where they feature their new "All Natural" detergent, especially formulated for the Indian market.   According to P&G, Indian housewives love it, it helps them keep their hands nice.   I wonder how the Indian alligators feel about it....we better ask them quick though, I hear most of them have already disappeared.

Toxicity of Linear Alkylate Sulfonate detergent to Larvae of 4 species of freshwater fish - 1975
   by J.M. McKim, J.W. Arthur, T.W. Thorsland   US Environmental Protection Agency, Cogdon, Minn.

This study can be accessed for free via the net and results clearly shows the eco-toxicity levels of LAS on four fresh water fish;  newly born northern pike, white sucker, smallmouth bass and fathead minnow. 
As the scientists who conducted this experiment point out, LAS seems to have the most devastating effect on the larvae of what I would presume to be all fish species.   Therefore, there is little need to spend time and money on researching how LAS effects mature fish because obviously if a pollutant kills off all the young, there wouldn't be any fish to mature anyway.   The study quotes research as early as 1965 that found, not surprisingly, that the young are more vulnerable to poison than the more mature among a species. 

A glance at the graph provided in this research shows that in the range between 2.5mg/L and 6.5mg/L all four larvae species were dead.   The term used is "standing crop", which I suppose sounds softer but nevertheless, the fact is there were no larvae left to study, all gone to the big fish nursery in the sky. 

This graph also shows that the "standing crop" is effected at much smaller levels of LAS as well.   The white sucker "standing crop" in water containing LAS begins to fall in amounts as little as 0.015mg/L (the lowest amount done during this test), minnows at around 0.5mg/L,  northern pike somewhere around 1mg/L, and the smallmouth bass were the hardiest of all, not showing a drastic drop until the level gets close to 6 mg/L, but judging from the chart at 6 mg/L, it looks like all the young bass died, the line drops nearly at a straight vertical.

So why is this worrying?   Well, as pointed out before, it is not that unusual to find waters near waste water treatment plants around 2.0mg/L and above and in the sediment readings of around 100 mg/L are not unusual.  Again, while much research say LAS is safe for marine life, this type of study clearly indicate that it isn't.

How long will it take before researchers find the exact cause of fish, frog and other aquatic mutations that have dramatically increased over the past 10 years?   Is it the pharmaceuticals excreted by humans finding its way back into the water system or industrial waste or is it the ingredients found in our cleaning products?  They've all been suspected.  Surfactants have been known to be deadly for at least the past 50 or longer.  These experts know that surfactants in the water speed up the intake of other pollutants by the creatures and plants in water.   As one company home page pointed out, surfactants in amounts as little as 0.2mg/l will cause fish to take up twice the amount of other pollutants in the water.  Perhaps more frightening is claims that 90% of the big fish in the ocean have disappeared over the last 50 years.  While most put the biggest responsibility for this on massive over exploitation by commercial fishing, doesn't it make you wonder if LAS in such small qualitites can effect the survival rate of baby fish, that pollution may have something to do with this huge catastrophe?   Don't sea bass hatch eggs in estuaries, estuaries that are fed by the rivers that contain LAS?   There are studies that show estuaries also contain alarmingly high rates of this surfactant. 

What will it take to get the regulators responsible for taking care of our environment to actually do something about the harmful surfactants found in laundry detergent formulas?   What will it take to get laundry detergent manufacturers to change their formulations?  If the choice is between paying a little more for less toxic laundry detergents that will at least give fish a better chance to come back, or continue paying today's prices and risk killing all fish, perhaps most consumers will make the right choice.  We're talking at the most paying 30 cents a wash instead of 20 cents, really, is that too expensive a price to give fish, marine life, a chance to come back?   Its up to us to let detergent makers know that we're willing to pay a little more to save our planet, because basically that's what's at stake, right?   Its up the detergent companies to provide us with truly safer products.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Research from China - LAS a Major Eco-Toxin Found in Lakes

Linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS) is said to be the most used surfactant in the world for laundry detergent formulations.   It has been used since the 1960's, and worldwide consumption is estimated to be around 2.8 million tons a year.  LAS is staunchly defended by all surfactant and detergent makers, by the US Detergent and Soap Association and various industry supported groups such as CLER.   These companies and organizations have sponsored much research in support of LAS's continued acceptance as a "safe" cleaning agent for laundry detergents.   Few environmental protection agencies or even environment groups have come out with a comprehensive movement to get detergent manufacturers to stop using LAS in their detergent formulations.

LAS in Water of Lake Dainchi

Very eye-opening article published in January of this year about the effects of linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS) done by a group of researcher from the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Wuhan, China.

Lake Dainichi is the biggest lake in Yunnan Province, and the 6th biggest freshwater lake in China.  It covers a surface area of approximately 300km, in terms of comparison, it is app. 3/5 the size of Lake Tahoe, North America's biggest Alpine lake.   Lake Dainichi is being filled with untreated municipal and industrial sewage flows and LAS is one of the major chemical contributors.  "There is about 2,276 tons of washing powder draining into Lake Dainchi every year".    Researchers have found the level of LAS in Lake Dainichi has gone up 2.4 times since 1995 and the data they collected on the amounts of LAS they measured clearly threatens the life of the lake unless something is done immediately.   Lake Dainichi is representative of many of China's eutrophic inland lakes that is being threatened by the overuse of surfactants in laundry detergents.

The data shows that the range of LAS in various areas of the lake ranged from 18.1 to 260.1 ug/l (micrograms per liter or ppb) and the average concentration was 52.6 ug/l.   This converts to a minimum of 0.0181 mg/l to 0.26 mg/l  (milligrams per liter or ppm).   In polluted rivers running into Lake Dainchi, levels as high as 2.1 mg/l (2.1 ppm) were recorded.

"LAS is regarded as a toxic substance for aquatic organisms.  A previous study (Lewis 1991) indicated that the chronic and sub-lethal toxicity of LAS to aquatic animals occurred at very low concentrations, such as 0.1 and 0.0002 - 40mg L, respectively.  Venhuis and Mehrvar (2004 reported that 0.02 - 1.0mg/L LAS in aquatic environment can damage fish gills, cause excess mucus secretions, decrease respiration in the common goby, and damage swimming patterns in blue mussel larva.  Van de Plassche et al.  (1999) reported final no-effect concentration (NEC) of 0.25mgL (-1) for LAS to aquatic organisms.  Belanger et al. (2002) estimated a NEC of 0.293 mg L(-1) which was based on a broad array of organisms (e.g.algae and invertebrates) that responded in similar time frames and concentrations.  Jorgensen and Christoffersen (2000) observed that LAS had a negative impact on the survival of heterotrophic nanoglagellates and ciliates at very low concentrations under field conditions (the NEC as low as 0.02 mg L (-1) They also demonstrated that NEC appeared to be lower in field tests than for similar organisms tested under laboratory conditions.  Moreover, several studies had demonstrated that some responses, such as swimming activity and weight gain in fish, were impaired when chronically exposed to 0.2 mg L(-1) LAS.   In China, the Environmental Quality Standards for Surface Water specifies a value of 0.2 mg L(-1) for fresh water .  The present study showed that LAS in Lake Dianchi may have potential ecologic risk since (1) the rapid increasing trend was found in the lake during (the)past decade and (2) the concentration of LAS in the lake may be close to the reported toxic levels.  Thus, the pollution of LAS in this lake should receive more attention by government to reduce pollution levels in the lake.  In this kind of situation, according to the dynamics of the LAS in different parts of the lake, the government needs to improve the efficiency and capability of sewage treatment plants to pre-treat wastewater containing LAS before they enter the lake, especially in the Northwest.  Fortunately, several programs for river cleaning have been initiated recently by local government."

LAS Is More Eco-Toxic Than Arsenic

There are several points that need to be stressed from the above findings:
1.  The evidence that laundry detergent is the source of this pollution was substantiated by the amount of other ingredients found in laundry detergents such as phosphates and nitrogen.  Data collected over 4 years showed, "Concentration of LAS was positively correlated with TP (total phosphate), TN (total nitrogen), and NH4+-N of 22 sampling sites in Lake Dianchi for four seasons combined. "
2.  The study quotes only a few of many studies that have taken place through the years that confirm exactly how toxic LAS is to marine life.  The Lewis study shows certain aquatic animals are effected in amounts as low as 1 part LAS for 10 million parts water.  (half a pint of LAS poured into an olympic-sized pool, would get a reading of 1.04 parts per 10 million).   While there may exist chemicals that are more toxic to marine life than LAS, you will not find it in the same abundance as LAS, and, with the potential to do as much harm to ourselves and the environment.  Compare LAS to arsenic for example, a much more well known poison.   Research generally shows LC50 of Daphnia magna (water fleas) when exposed to LAS is somewhere in the range of 3.6 to 4.7ppm (mg/L).  For Arsenic, it's around 7.4 - 7.5ppm.   LAS is twice as toxic for marine life than arsenic.   In this context, it is outrageous that detergent manufacturers continue to be the main players in putting over 5 billion pounds of LAS into our environment year after year for over 40 years.    
3.  Supporters of LAS will quickly point out LAS can not be found in the same concentrations in the waters of developed countries which have better waste water treatment facilities.  They will also tell you it quickly biodegrades so it is safe.   This should not be good enough for regulators to keep allowing the use of LAS.    In all water located near human populations that use detergent, LAS can be found.  In river bank sediment, where the lack of air decreases greatly LAS's ability to biodegrade, dangerously high levels of LAS can be found, well in excess of 100mg/L (in major tributaries like the Mississippi), much higher than what aquatic animals can bear.   Obviously during times of heavy rain and flooding, this sediment mixes back into water.   What happens to grey water still in drainage systems when it rains heavily and the drains overflow?   It must run directly into creeks and rivers without ever going through a waste-water treatment plant, causing levels of surfactants in water to spike, and in some cases leading to large fish kills.  More alarming however is the appearance of frogs with 6 legs and male fish carrying fish eggs.   Mutations among these species are indicators that all water creatures are being effected by pollutants and there is enough evidence and data to say surfactants are among the most common and deadly.  

Major detergent makers can come up with much safer formulations and regulators and consumers must persuade them to do so.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Henkel and Questions Arising from Their "History of Persil"

I was curious to see what detergent makers themselves have to say publicly about the surfactants they use in their formulations.  Of course, the "green" makers will point out they use renewable plant-based sources for their cleaning agents.  The advantage of course, is these sources can be produced by man by adding more agricultural land, presumably from existing non-agricultural land, wilderness land...not such a good idea, from where I stand.  They make little or no claim about these surfactants being safer for you or the environment.  Again call them and ask, "Can I mix your detergent into my goldfish bowl, will my goldfish survive?" 
To check what the companies had to say, I clicked the homepages of a few. 

Let me just copy for your perusal what I found on the Henkel Homepage.   I did not get permission from Henkel to copy their info, I don't know if I'm breaking any copyright laws or not.   Since Henkel puts it out into the public domain and I've acknowledged the ownership, I don't think so.  So, here it is.
 (By googling "Henkel", and clicking on their Persil" brand laundry detergent (best selling brand in Germany, according to the site), you should see the points listed below, under "history".  For the sake of brevity, I've not copied all of it, and condensed a few down to mostly the points that raises questions.)

From Henkel Homepage, Persil  "History"

  • 1959 - "Persil 59" Introduced.  Synthetic anionic surfactants, a foam intensifier and a fresh fragrance were the new ingredients of the best Persil ever
  • 1965 - Introduction of new drum washing machines necessitates a new formula to control foaming.  New ingredients included sodium phosphate, biodegradable surfactants, non-ionic surfactants
  • 1986 - Persil phosphate-free,  Progress for the Environment - as early as the 1950's Henkel was conducting experiments to research the biodegradability of surfactants.  In 1966 the research project "phosphate substitute" was launched.  Because surfactants which release the soil from the laundry, and phosphates, which soften the water pollute surface waters.  The researchers succeeded in developing surfactants with better and better biodegradability.  And for phosphates, they found a substitute substance: "Zeolite A" (Sasil) for which a patent was filed in 1973.
  • 1987 - Persil Liquid - The alternative to Powder - Once again, Henkel expanded its Persil range.  This time with a product - Persil liquid - which was to revolutionize an already existing niche market.   Its especially high surfactant content made the liquid laundry a very powerful stain remover, even at low temperatures of up to 60 degrees....(?)
  • 1999 - Persil Sensitive - For people with sensitive skin.  To cater specifically for people with sensitive skin and those who suffer allergies, Henkel joined forces with the German Allergy and AsthmaAssociation to develop a product that not only delivers the accustomed washing performance but is also highly skin compatible. 
  • 2004 - Persil Sensitive with Natural Soap - Henkel now offers Persil Sensitive with Natural Soap.  It delivers full washing performance, is highly skin compatible and also gives the laundry a mild   fragrance.  The fragrance was developed and successfully tested in collaboration with the German Allergy and Asthma Association.

Here are the questions I have for Henkel beginning from their entry from 1986:
  • 1.  Why did it take 20 years to introduce a phosphate-free laundry detergent?  Water pollution problems associated with too much phosphates in the world waterways began surfacing as early as the late 1950's and by 1986, most of the waterways were already on their way to recovering from phosphate-related problems, at least in the US.   Why so long?
  • 2.  Also from your 1986 entry, you write, "As early as the 1950's, Henkel was researching the biodegradability of surfactants"  Obviously you suspected some problems with surfactants very early, otherwise, why spend the money?   Besides "polluting surface waters"  what other problems did you see?  Were these concerns made public?  Well, others were doing it for you, perhaps you thought it not necessary.
  • 3.  Introduction of Persil Liquid and its "especially high surfactant content".   So, had Henkel solved the problem of surfactants to the degree that the surfactant used in this formulation was safe and could be increased without any additional damage to the environment or your consumers?  Again, could this liquid be added to the water with my goldfish and would my goldfish survive? 
  • 4.  Concerning your "Persil Sensitive" developed in 1999, why did you join forces with the German Allergy and Asthma Association?   Does Henkel recognize the condition of "sensitive skin" is associated with other health issues?  What specifically was changed in this formula that made it less of a irritant for people with sensitive skin?   Wasn't it mostly a "milder surfactant?
  • 5.  Five years later you came out with a "Persil Sensitive With Natural Soap".   Why, didn't your prior formulation work?    Since this is "natural soap", the surfactant must have changed from your earlier  "For Sensitive Skin" formulation.  Also, since natural soap will leave a grimy film, and has little or no ability to keep the dirt and grim suspended in the water from re-depositing on the clothes,you must have other ingredients to take care of these problems.   Do these ingredients include another surfactant? 

While Henkel wished to show how they have helped to improve their products, it mainly raises my suspicion that all big laundry detergent makers know the dangers of surfactants and that they have known about these problems since the 1950's and have only "tweaked" out minor changes, changes enough not to be held legally accountable to say the current surfactants are "biodegradable".  Not enough to to be better for our health to any significant degree, not enough to save aquatic species.  Don't you think it's about time that consumers at least ask, "How can a company continue to sell a household laundry cleaner for 60 years that they knew contained such a damaging ingredient? "   Don't these companies have no shame?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Surfactants' Trail of Damage - Supporting Testimony

Rather than just give you my thoughts and opinions, it might be more convincing if I could begin gathering the testimony of other concerned people, organizations and companies.   I'll start with the two below.

Excerpted From:

"Detergents are very widely used in both industrial and domestic premises like soaps and detergents to wash vehicles.  The major entry point into water is via sewage works into surface water.  They are also used in pesticide formulations and for dispersing oil spills at sea.  The degradation of alkylphenol polyethoxylates (non-ionic) can lead to the formation of alkylphenols (particularly nonyphenols), which act as endocrine disruptors. 

What occurs if detergents show up in fresh waters?
Detergents can have poisonous effects in all types of aquatic life if they are present in sufficient quantities, and this includes the biodegradable detergents.  All detergents destroy the external mucus layers that protect the fish from bacteria and parasites, plus they can cause severe damage to the gills.  Most fish will die when detergent concentrations approach 15 parts per million. * Detergent concentrations as low as 5ppm will kill fish eggs.   Surfactant detergents are implicated in decreasing the breeding ability of aquatic organisms.
Detergents also add another problem for aquatic life by lowering the surface tension of the water.  Organic chemicals such as pesticides and phenols are then much more easily absorbed by the fish.  A detergent concentration of only 2 ppm can cause fish to absorb double the amount of chemicals they would normally absorb, although that concentration itself is not high enough to affect fish directly.

"The potential for acute aquatic toxic effects due to the release of secondary or tertiary sewage effluents containing the breakdown products of laundry detergents may frequently be low.  However untreated or primary treated effluents containing detergents may pose a problem.  Chronic and/or sub-lethal effects that were not examined in this study may also pose a problem." 

* (What happens when you put the manufacturer's recommended dose of detergent into your washer?  If your washer uses 10 gallons of water per cycle and your're using 30 grams of detergent, the surfactants in that water would be app. 400 ppm, or over 25 times the lethal dosage for most fish)

Article found on Surfrider Foundation, Europe Blog Page

In 1999, researchers at the National Research Institute (INRA)* confirmed the toxicity of non-degraded surfactants originating from detergents found in sea water.  INRA concluded that surfactants are phytotoxic compounds and present a very real environmental problem for which a solution needs to be found in the near future.  This was 10 years ago, and a solution is yet to be found.

Zero Response to INRA'S Warning

This warning call was voiced several years ago but since then there hasn't been a sound.  This, despite mounting evidence of the adverse impact detergents in the environment have.  What products are we talking about here?  Simply those from laundry, disinfectants, soaps and shampoos, drain and toilet cleaners, in short all those products used on a a daily basis around the world.  Discharged directly into the ocean via the stormwater or wastewater system, these petroleum based products poison plankton, marine fauna and flora, as well as coastal vegetation scoured by ocean spray loaded with surfactants, the compounds responsible for product toxicity.  The levels in our environment have reached a degree of toxicity that they present a risk to sources of potable water.

Human and Environmental Impacts

The process of growth inhibition and cellular division affects algae as well as the animals that feed on them.  By coming into contact with plankton, the bio-active detergent molecules contaminate the food web.  Effects on population health, results from researchers indicate that changes to the endocrine system are affected by surfactants.  The seriousness of the effects caused by contaminated ocean spray has become apparent in terrestrial flora, causing irreversible damage widely  supported by studies conducted by IFREMER.*

Author:  Aude Briau, translated by Dan McDonald
INRA = French National Institute for Agricultural Research (&Environment)
IFREMER = French Research Insititute for Exploration of the Sea

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Eco-Friendly Detergents - Surfactant "Lights"

Eco-Friendly Detergents Not So Eco-Friendly

Over the past 20 years numerous laundry detergent brands claiming to be "environmentally friendly" have sprung up.   Thanks to a list provided by a site called "Pinstripes and Polkadots", we can do a quick check of reported ingredients in these brands.   Every eco-friendly brand contains surfactants, a couple lists "soap" but remember, soap is a surfactant.   Therefore, these are not safe for your health or for the health of the environment.   Here's a quick check of brands and surfactants listed:

Company/Product Name                         Surfactant Listed
    Allen's Naturally                          cleaning agents that are naturally derived
    Bi-O-Kleen                                 Surfactants from coconuts
                                                        Linear ethoxilates from coconuts
    Earth Friendly (Baby)                  Vegetable & Coconut based soap
    Ecos                                            Plant Based surfactants
    Ecover                                         non-ionic, anionic surfactants
    Method                                       blend of naturally derived and biodegradable surfactants
    Mountain Green                           vegetable-based cleaning agents
    Mrs Meyer's                                anionic surfactants derived from plant sources
    Nature Clean                               polyglycoside (from corn starch and palm kernel oil)
    Oxy Prime                                   "mild" surfactant
    Planet                                           Coconut oil based cleaner,
                                                        ethoxylated alcohol amine oxide (surfactant?)
    Seventh Generation                       A combination of naturally derived cleaning agents
    Shaklee                                        Anionic and/or nonionic cleaning agents
    Trader Joe's Cleanliness....            vegetable and coconut derived surfactants

I've attempted to list all the brands that are marketed as being environmentally friendly or better for us in terms of safety when compared to national brands.   I know I missed a few, not intentionally, just hurrying to get this done.  Whatever brand I may have missed, I will assure you it contains a surfactant. 

Let's examine their claims about giving you a better, more environmentally better product.  In terms of using renewable resources and getting rid of fragrances and other artificial chemical additives, they are probably right.
In terms of running their operations and business in a ecologically responsible way, they may be right.
In terms of reduction of wasteful practices, perhaps.
So what these companies claim, is not wrong, they just aren't giving us the whole story.  The fact is the majority of people who work for these companies truly believe they are acting very responsibly and bringing a product to market that is better than what the big makers are offering in terms of the health of their consumers and health of the environment.   I do not include the chemistry experts or the top executives in this category however.

The Truth about "Milder", "Biodegradable" Plant-Based Surfactants

Why am I being so harsh?  The chemist who make up the formulas and the executives who gives the go ahead all know about the damaging effects of surfactants and I also believe the majority of them know they can make a safer product.   However, just like the major brands, these brands are putting profit ahead of what's good for you, what's good for the water and life in the water.
"But they are using "milder", natural surfactants derived from renewable palm, coconut and other plant based oils, this surely must be better?"   It is better only in the sense that these are renewable resources.   You can grow another palm tree, you can't wait for the next oil field to form.  Remember though, to have enough palm oil to meet the world demand, you need to clear natural wilderness areas to raise the crop.   This is not good for either us or the wilderness and the animals that make their home in that wilderness.
Another question we all must ask ourselves, can't there be better usage for the palm oil derivative being used to make detergents, say like for food purposes?  I don't know the answer to this.  It may be the same as propylene, the derivative of crude oil that goes into the making of much of the laundry surfactants employed today.  Propylene was basically a throw away derivative of refined crude - worthless, until the German's during WWII, through the magic of chemistry, turned this waste product into a cheap detergent that could take the place of the animal fats they were running short of.    Its easy to see how detergent makers turned to this new surfactant and easy to see how surfactants came to be the only cleaning agent used in cleaning products immediately after WWII.  Initially, raw material costs must have been next to nothing.  Imagine you could pick up the stuff for free and turn it into a product that you could sell.   How do you calculate gross profit margins on that?   So,which derivative of palm or coconut oil is actually used for renewable and biodegradable laundry surfactants, I can't say.    Perhaps that derivative can only be used for producing surfactants and nothing else.  We need to ask the surfactant maker.
Another reason to question the safety of plant based surfactants can be found on P&G's homepage. P&G claims plant-based and crude-oil based surfactant are both the same in terms of effectiveness and safety.  Are they saying this because crude-based surfactants are cheaper or because when you run the two different oils through all the processes at the manufacturing plant, the end result is the same, I don't know. 
As for claims of "easily biodegrades", this really has to be checked carefully.   When they say it biodegrades quickly, what does this mean?   Hours, days, weeks or months?   Also in what weather conditions...some surfactants will biodegrade quickly in water during the summer when it's hot, but will not biodegrade at all in cold winter water.   Are they talking about initial biodegradation or ultimate biodegradation?  Also while most surfactants do biodegrade in the presence of air and oxygen (aerobic conditions), does it biodegrade when air is unavailable like in the sludge of waste water treatment plants (anaerobic conditions)?   You may be interested to know that this phenomenon is just beginning to be studied in Europe, don't know what's happening in the US.  It could be surfactants that were considered readily biodegradable before, may not have the same rating under stricter standards. 
Perhaps a few  makers of "eco-friendly" detergents are using surfactants that are genuinely biodegradable - a surfactant that when it is released into the environment immediate begins to break down into carbon dioxide and other natural chemicals and has little negative impact.  But I don't know who that may be.  If such a product existed, I would think they would rush that data to the consumer, something I don't see happening.   Instead, they use words like "mild", or "quick to biodegrade", or some other phrase that implies their surfactants are safe when in actuality it isn't.  How do you check for yourself if this is true?  If you happen to be using a eco-friendly detergent now, call or e-mail the maker and ask if its OK to put their recommended dosage for washing  (in the same ratio to the water)  into your goldfish bowl? Would your goldfish live or die?    Here's a bet, call and ask....betcha you won't find any one of these ecologically minded companies who will tell you its OK, your goldfish is perfectly safe.   If it's not safe for your goldfish, its not safe for the fish in your local pond or river.  It's not safe for the tadpole, water bugs, and worms in the ground around that pond.  It's not safe for you and your family.  

One last word concerning biodegradability.   If you are putting the same substance into the same pond day after day and if it hasn't completely gone away in 24 hours, does biodegradability really make that much difference to the ultimate sustainability of a species?    Doing laundry is nearly a daily chore, meaning we are pouring the same substances down the sink every day, the same amount of surfactants reaching the pond on a daily basis.   The creatures living in that pond are exposed to the same amount of toxins.  It seems to me it's just a matter of time - they die quickly if a toxin is less biodegradable, they die less slow if the toxin biodegrades more quickly, in the end however, that species will ultimately disappear.   I suppose biodegradability may give certain species a chance to adapt.   But really, is anyone out there so in love with today's detergents that would say to the fish, "Hey, you fish, adapt or die!"
 I don't think there is a surfactant produced today that can biodegrade completely in 24 hours or less, at least not ones that can be used economically for laundry detergent.  One study I saw, I think it was for LAS, was labeled by one EPA study as "quickly biodegradable".   It turns out under the best of conditions, it started biodegrading in about 3 days and took anywhere from 10 days to a month to get down to undetectable levels.   In cold winter months, however, researchers couldn't find any signs of biodegradation at all.   So when you see "Biodegradable" on a label, don't assume you are buying a product that is safer for the ecology or yourself.   After all you will be wearing it soon since it is in your recently laundered clothes. 

Remember when cigarette makers began marketing brands like Marlboro "Lights", cigarettes that they claimed to be safer?   It turns out "Light" cigarettes did more harm and caused more deadly lung cancers than regular cigarettes.    (go to u-tube, search Prof. Channing Robertson's Lec. 23 for a fascinating personal history of the cigarette lawsuits)  When "Lights" came out, doctors began seeing "deep lung" cancers, something they never saw before.   Why?  Smokers took deeper drags in an attempt to get the same nicotine hit they got from their old brands.   Well, I'm wondering if marketing campaigns run by the eco-friendly detergent makers are not so dissimilar - getting people to believe they are using a product that is better for themselves and the ecology when in reality, they are not.
Who's worse, the national brands who make little or no claim to the safety of their detergents (except for  product lines they label mild, gentle or for babies) or eco-friendly makers who say they are safer?

Until these companies eliminate the use of surfactant-class chemicals in their formulations, the argument of whether they produce a safer product or not centers only on trivialities and not worth the effort.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Surfactants - Leading Cause of Atopic Dermatitis

The Current State and Orthodoxy of Atopic Dermatitis

To clarify what atopic dermatitis is, the numbers of people it effects and current thinking on the condition, here's an excerpt From the American Family Physician dated September , 1999
entitled Atopic Dermatitis: A Review of Diagnosis and Treatment

"Atopic dermatitis is a common, potentially debilitating condition that can compromise quality of life.  Its most frequent symptom is pruritus (itching).  Attempts to relieve the itch by scratching simply worsen the rash, leading to a vicious circle.  Treatment should be  directed at limiting itching, repairing the skin and decreasing inflammation when necessary.  Lubricants, antihistamines and topical corticosteroids are the mainstays of therapy.  When required, oral corticosteroids can be used.  If pruritus does not respond to treatment, other diagnoses, such as bacterial overgrowth or viral inventions, should be considered. "

"Atopic dermatitis is a chronic inflammation of the skin that occurs in persons of all ages but is more common in children.  The condition is characterized by intense pruritus and a course marked by exacerbation and remissions.   Atopic dermatitis has been reported to affect 10% of children in the United States alone it is estimated that more than $364 million per year is spent on the treatment of childhood atopic dermatitis.    Although the symptoms of atopic dermatitis resolve by adolescence in 50% of affected children, the condition can persist into adulthood.  Poor prognostic features include a family history of the condition, early disseminated infantile disease, female gender and coexisting allergic rhinitis and asthma." 

What did we learn from the above?  That doctors really don't know the cause, that they don't have a cure, that it is often misdiagnosed, that powerful drugs (corticosteroids, steroids?  - isn't that the stuff that got all those baseball players in trouble?) are often prescribed, not to cure but to lessen the itching.  The article is from 10 years ago but the majority of dermatologists today still believe the above.   As far as the annual cost of treating atopic dermatitis, $364 million (even for treatment of children only) was greatly understated.  In a handout put out by The National Institute of Arthritis, Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease last year, they estimated direct cost of total (not just kids) atopic dermatitis (doctor and hospital costs) treatment was estimated to be around $3 billion and this was just 25% of total costs.  Indirect costs, (filling prescriptions, etc.) accounted for 75% of the cost so that's another $9 billion or a total of $12 billion.   This too greatly understates the true cost of atopic dermatitis when considering the lost time at work by people who suffer from this condition.  It is a problem, especially when you consider atopic dermatitis is only a symptom of something gone wrong in the body.  Atopic dermatitis is often accompanied by other physical problems such as allergies and asthma.  What is the cost when you throw in these physical ailments?   

Don't get confused by the myriad of information you see on the Web.  Here's one from which is better than most of the kinds of descriptions you run into in the popular press.
"Multiple factors can trigger or worsen atopic dermatitis, including dry skin, seasonal allergies, exposure to harsh soaps and detergents, new skin products or creams and cold weather."   OK, not wrong but two things to question about this statement.  1.)  What causes "dry skin" and 2). the word "harsh" to describe soaps and detergents.  Again, dry skin is caused by surfactants, in most instances.  Moving on, the word "harsh" needs to be questioned because this implies there are alternative choices that are available.   Perhaps there are products containing "less harsh"surfactants that may relieve the symptoms for some for a period of time, may even delay the onset of the symptoms for others but in the end, if the product contains a surfactant, the chances are you or somewhere down your generational line, one of the offsprings of your offspring, will eventually get atopic dermatitis.  Either that or your body will learn to adapt.   In addition, you can find testimonies by doctors saying only about one out of 100 cases of atopic dermatitis is related to the soap products that are used.    This just doesn't correspond to what we know.

The above information is either outdated or just plain wrong as you can see on a web page titled, Skin Therapy Letter (Cutaneous Cleansers) -  "Written for dermatologists by dermatologists" in the section subtitle "Effectiveness/Recent Findings" published in 2003.  You will find the following:

"Surfactants cause the majority of adverse skin reactions and disrupt or disturb the moisture skin barrier as surface debris and microorganisms are removed.  Anionic/sodium containing surfactants such as sodium lauryl sulphate, sodium tallowate and sodium stearate have been shown to disrupt lipids in the moisture skin barrier, as well as increase the PH of the Skin by as much as 2-3 units.  Disruption and depletion of barrier lipids and an increased skin PH leads to compromised skin barrier leaving the skin in a negative physiologic state with an increased sensitivity to potential irritants.
Other surfactant types, i.e. amphoteric (cocamidopropl betaine) and nonionic (propylene glycol) have been shown to cause a range of skin and sensory irritations." 

Japanese Doctor Cures all 651 Atopic Dermatitis Patients 

So the above is in agreement with a very comprehensive study done with atopic dermatitis patients.   A dermatologist in Japan, a Dr. Yoshinari Isobe treated  651 Japanese atopic dermatitis sufferers and within two years, cured them all.  How?  By telling them to avoid all surfactants.  They were not allowed to use any soaps, shampoos and avoid all surfactant-containing personal care products and bathe using lukewarm water only.  The severity of atopic dermatitis ranged from relatively minor to severe in both female and male patients, and ages of the patients ranged from infants to the very elderly.  The time from initial consultation to cure ran from a few weeks to two years.  80% of the cases were cured within 500 days.  The remaining 20% took longer due to exposure to oil, cement, special dyeing chemicals or resins in their work.   Others that took longer suffered from "sick-house syndrome", those spending much of their time in a living environment which included excessive amounts of polyester and polyurethane chemical fibers.  Dr. Isobe writes, "I have concluded that the continuous daily usage of detergents such as shampoo, rinse and body soap lies at the bottom of this chronic problem".   
In this study, Dr. Isobe makes some interesting observations:
1. The real breakout of atopic dermatitis began in the mid 1970's with growth in Japanese income and increased use of shampoos, conditioners and body soaps. 
2.  People who are not accustomed to using surfactant based soaps, like the Tibetans, Mongolians and Eskimos have had no incidences of this illness.  (Really?)
3.  Symptoms of atopic dermatitis has in recent years been detected in household pets, mainly dogs, that are kept indoors and washed with surfactants by their owners. 

While both the "Skin Therapy Letter" Web page and Dr. Isobe seem to agree on the major cause of atopic dermatitis, I think the "Skin Therapy Letter" advice on using safer surfactants to wash is bad and wonder where these dermatologists get their information - from sales representatives of expensive soap formulas, perhaps.

"Liquid facial cleansers are the most effective and beneficial cleansers for sensitive and compromised skin.  Their formulations are complex, utilizing a combination of surfactants, moisturizers, binders and preservatives to form a product that will cause the fewest problems and the greatest benefits.  A well-designed liquid facial cleanser will use nonionic and silicone surfactants....."   

Does the above sound right to you?   Use a soap that has even more chemicals in it to cure the problem caused by chemicals?   Anytime a sales pitch starts with "Well its complex...."  I get the feeling they are saying don't worry about it, let the experts figure it out for you.   And usually if you let someone else do your thinking you end up putting yourself in a bigger mess.  The conclusion is a definite red flag:

"Although liquid facial cleansers are formulated to be less irritating to the skin, some of its components may disrupt the skin barrier or cause contact sensitivities."    I've heard enough, no thanks.  I'm pretty sure Dr. Isobe would not recommend replacing one surfactant with another.

Dr. Isobe is attempting to get his study printed by a major medical or science journal in English.  He also has a book out in Japanese that may one day be available in English.

Exposure to Surfactants from the Clothes you Wear

Unfortunately for my purposes,  which again is to get laundry detergent makers to stop using surfactants, Dr. Isobe did not write about the effects of the surfactants that remain on your clothes after washing.   As long as you wash with detergents containing surfactants you will always be exposing your body to the surfactants that stays on your clothes.   Even after 2 rinses, studies have shown as much as 30% of the surfactant is still stuck to your clothes.   According to the inventor of the surfactant-free detergent, even after switching to the healthier stuff, it would take approximately 5 washes in the surfactant-free formula to get all the accumulated surfactants out.    While most toxicity research on surfactants warn, can be absorbed through the skin, I think you might be better off health-wise to think, all surfactants are absorbed into the skin, no matter how minute.
As all drug companies and some ex-smoker's realize, a drug patch treated with the right conductor chemical is a great way to release drugs into your blood stream, it's quick and releases the drugs at a constant rate.  The nitroglycerin in the tablet placed under the tongue of a person in the initial stages of a heart attack will reach that person's heart in 13 seconds.    Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) a surfactant still found in many shampoo formulas is a great conductor of drugs through the skin barrier.   Its been found to be in the bloodstream as quick as 3 seconds after application.  In consideration of recent findings in surfactant research, the danger of dermal toxicity posed by surfactants remaining on your clothes is real and must be taken seriously.  A chemical compound that can penetrate the skin barrier and mutate your genes shouldn't be found in the fabric of your jeans.

While people suffering from atopic dermatitis has probably existed from the time man began using soap (Sumerians are credited for making the first soaps around 2,500 BC),  the epidemic really started from around 50 years ago and the incidences of people suffering from this skin illness continues to increase throughout the developed world.    The cleaning and personal care industry must reduce their use of surfactants and it is up to consumers to instruct them to do so.   Without hearing from you, nothing will change except the numbers of people undergoing treatment for atopic dermatitis.