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March 23, 2018  |  Login
Get the Scoop on Laundry Products
By Karyn Siegel-Maier

Do you know what you’re really putting down the drain?

Doing laundry has never been easier than it is today. Gone are the days of wearing out elbows from scrubbing clothing on a washboard or hand cranking a ringer to remove excess water. Energy expenditure has been replaced with energy efficiency. In fact, the newer front-loading washers are designed to handle impossibly large loads and still save energy by using more steam power and about 40 percent less water. Unfortunately, that cheery looking bottle of laundry detergent may be making all of your eco-efforts a complete wash out.

Like many other types of household cleaning products, manufacturers of laundry products are not required to disclose the ingredients on the product’s label. In addition, some of these ingredients are unique to laundry products and present equally distinctive challenges to the environment and your health. In fact, very few manufacturers of conventional laundry products are willing to come clean about the fact that their formulas may contain pesticides and hormone-disrupting chemicals.

Sorting Through the Pile of Laundry Chemicals

Nothing quite says clean like ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid, does it? Otherwise known as EDTA, this amino acid is composed of several compounds, including 1, 2-diaminoethane (a byproduct of ammonia), formaldehyde, and a highly toxic salt called sodium cyanide. EDTA is known to be toxic,   can be absorbed through the skin and is not entirely biodegradable.

NPEs (Nonylphenol ethoxylates) are inexpensive, petroleum-based surfactants that act as wetting agents to allow other chemicals in the formula to permeate fabrics. Like EDTA, NPEs are not truly biodegradable and tend to wreak havoc on the reproductive cycle of wildlife and fish. While the European Union has banned the use of NPEs in laundry products since the 1990s, NPEs are still plentiful in American waters. In fact, the Sierra Club has determined that more than 60% of US streams and rivers contain significant levels of NPEs.

The promise of dazzling white laundry becomes a bit sullied when you consider the eye-opening truth about ‘optical brighteners’. Far from being true whitening agents, optical brighteners are actually fluorescent dyes. Their purpose in the formula is to absorb and deflect light in the ultraviolet spectrum and send it back as blue light. In short, the eyes are tricked by the additional blue light, which makes fabrics simply appear to be less yellow than they really are.

The Ripple Effect You Can’t See

Both NPEs and EDTA tend to adhere to soil particles, which allow them to infiltrate groundwater and even residential wells and septic systems. They are also particularly persistent in the environment since they change into even more harmful toxins when exposed to bacteria during wastewater treatment. Since these agents remain in the environment, they can be absorbed by plants, wildlife and fish. It should also be noted that these chemicals, which are suspected carcinogens, can be absorbed through the skin from the residue that remains on laundered clothing.

Optical brighteners are especially sticky. That is, they are designed to adhere to the surface of clothing in order to make items appear whiter and brighter. In fact, this is precisely why line-dried clothing and towels sometimes feel stiff. Not only do these agents become suspended in the environment for a long time, but they also have a way of rubbing off on you—literally.

Ready to come clean with your laundry? Learn 5 Ways to Spot Green Laundry Products and how to Hang Those Toxins Out to Dry







European Bans on Surfactant Trigger Transatlantic Debate, Environmental Science & Technology, July 1997 -

Sierra Club Press Release: Groups Demand EPA Action on Gender-Bending Chemicals, June 2007 -- 

EPA-744-F-99-008: Key Characteristics of Laundry Detergent Ingredients, May 1999 --

The Naturally Clean Home by Karyn Siegel-Maier, Storey Publishing, 1999. 

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