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.