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.

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