Environmental impact of cleaning agents

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Environmental impacts of cleaning agents are the consequences of chemicals contained in the products that are essential for their effectiveness. Bioactive molecules that are detrimental to the environment have multiple sources. Some include the compounds that have biodegraded into more dangerous molecules, compounds that are directly contained in the product, or enter the environment through leaching from the containers of the cleaning agent. These bioactive molecules are contained in many common household products such as detergents, glass and oven cleaners.[1] Increased focus concerning the impact of cleaning products has emerged as developmental and endocrine disruptors have been linked to cleaning agents.[2][3] Environmentally conscious consumers are concerned with the negative effects on ecosystems as some chemicals have been found to alter gene function. Altered gene function often leads to changes in an organism's proper development, which may devastate local animal populations causing grander upset in ecosystems. For example, many cleaning agents contain oestradiol mimicking compounds that hinder proper development in male offspring and accelerate puberty in young females. Consumer concerns have also been instigated by the immediate effects of cleaning products, such as skin and eye irritation, that occur upon contact. The solution to these negative consequences have been advocated as green cleaning, alternative methods of cleaning that makes use of environmentally friendly chemistry that can be as effective as the chemicals contained in cleaning products.[4]

Impacts of packaging material to environment[edit]


Environmental concern surrounding phthalates includes its widespread use in cleaning product containers. Phthalates are ubiquitous in the environment because of their common role as a plasticizer (materials used to enhance plastic flexibility and durability). Phthalates are a known reproductive adversary that can lead to abnormal development in offspring. Increased awareness surrounding its negative developmental effects has worried consumers as daily exposure is almost certain. Another characteristic of phthalates that has raised concern is that they are fat soluble compounds capable of bioaccumulating in fatty tissue.[5]


Phthalates do not covalently bind to the thermoplastic polymers they're manufactured in, thereby enhancing the presence of the contaminant in the environment as it freely leaches into the environment or is readily absorbed in the atmosphere. Bioaccumulation is a significant contributor of phthalate human exposure resulting from consumption of fatty foods such as milk, butter and meat.[2] Livestock that feed on phthalate contaminated foods and breathe polluted air retain the molecule and propagate its presence in the environment. Infants are especially vulnerable to the detrimental effects of exposure because their bodies cannot effectively combat the consequences phthalates have on their developing reproductive systems. Cleaning products play a large role in environmental phthalate contribution as they are mostly in plastic containers. Phthalates that leach from the plastic containers of cleaning products drain into the waterways where they are either released into the ocean or recycled back into the ecosystem via primary consumption and can continue along the food chain.

Another source of exposure to phthalates may be through direct inhalation of cleaning products. Phthalates are aromatic molecules that are added to cleaners to mask chemical smells, and are usually contained (among other substances) in the ingredient "fragrance." [6]

Potential effects[edit]

Phthalates contained in the packaging of cleaning products include dibutyl phthalate (DBP) and diethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), molecules that have negative effects on male reproductive development. DEHP has been found to inhibit the activity of aromatase, an enzyme that is responsible for male brain masculinization. DBP is an estrogen mimicking compound that disturbs thyroid function and has been found to hasten puberty in young girls. In utero, DBP and DEHP have shown adverse effects on development at levels below toxicological concern, resulting in abnormal male development causing conditions such as hypospadias.[7]

Extensive animal research evidencing the developmental effects of phthalates have led researchers to identify the collection of conditions as phthalate syndrome: “demasculinization of the male reproductive tract, increases in the likelihood of undescended testes, and lowered sperm counts and testicular tumors in adulthood.” [2]

Government regulation[edit]

The United States government has recognized phthalates as a hazardous waste and industries are regulated in their disposal of the pollutant. Conversely, companies are not restricted by any regulations regarding their use in consumer products, cleaning product packaging or use in cosmetics.

Bioactive molecules of cleaning agents[edit]

The human impact on the environment has produced a range of unnatural compounds that have been specifically developed to achieve the goals of the manufacturer. As a result, synthesized chemicals exposed to the environment introduce novel, bioactive opponents to ecosystems with consequences ranging from mild to severe for terrestrial and aquatic animals, humans and plant life.

Alkylphenol ethoxylates and alkylphenols[edit]

In 1944, the United Kingdom debuted alkylphenol ethoxylates for use in domestic and industrial detergents. Alkylphenols may undergo synthetic ethoxylation to produce alkylphenol ethoxylate chains (APEs), surfactants with polar and hydrophobic characteristics that provide the effectiveness of the compound as a detergent. Environmental threats of APEs emerge from microbial or photochemical degradation of alkylphenol ethoxylate into alkylphenols: lipophilic, hormone mimicking compounds.[3]


APEs in detergents may drain into water systems where they are vulnerable to photochemical and/or microbial degradation. APE degradation produces oestradiol mimicking alkylphenols that disrupt endocrine function in aquatic animals directly exposed to contaminated water. Unlike APEs, alkylphenols are resistant to degradation and can persist in waterway sediment or continue until drainage into the sea. Also, the lipophilicity of alkylphenols provides it access across cellular lipid bilayers, facilitating bioconcentration of the molecule in animal organs.[3]

Potential effects[edit]

Endocrine disruption of alkylphenols was evidenced by research affirming cell proliferation in cells treated with alkylphenols, a response usually generated by oestradiol binding. Further investigation revealed that hormone mimicking alkylphenols affiliate with the oestradiol receptor and averts the proper binding and function of oestradiol. Male trout in alkylphenol contaminated rivers showed reduced testicular growth and synthesized 570,000 times more vitellogenin than did control male trout. The astonishing quantity of vitellogenin, a precursor of lipo- and phosphoproteins that make up egg-yolk protein, in the male trout population from River Lea of England exceeded that of females just before ovulation.[3]

Endocrine disruption in trout enticed researchers to inspect the consequences of alkylphenol on the human endocrine system. Results found hormone disruption in human males similar to male trout indicating an increase in the transcription of proteins involved in female reproductive tissue communication.

Government regulation[edit]

Since the discovery of its adverse effects on an organism’s endocrine system, the United Kingdom phased out the use of APEs as cleaning agents since 2000. To date, there are no regulations regarding the use or removal of APEs.[3]

2-Butoxylethanol, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (EGBE)[edit]

2-Butoxyethanol is a common glycol ether used as a solvent in carpet, hard-surface, glass, and oven cleaners owing to its surfactant properties. It is a relatively cheap, volatile solvent of low toxicity.[8]

2-Butoxylethanol takes longer to break down in water and soil than it does in air. 2-Butoxythanol has not been found to build up in plants and animals. [9]


Ammonium hydroxide is a corrosive solution with alkaline properties that is a component in cleaning products.


Human exposure to ammonia may be through inhalation or by direct ingestion. Natural human exposure of ammonia may be through the environment as it is a product of bacterial metabolism through the nitrogen cycle. Environmental exposure to ammonia can be either through bacterial metabolism or from man-made cleaning products that contain the compound in large concentrations.[10]

Potential effects[edit]

Inhalation of ammonia vapors causes irritation to the skin, eyes, oral cavity or respiratory tract as ammonia reacts with mucous surfaces as a base. Ammonia removes hydrogen from surfaces, forming ammonium, and can lead to cell destruction through its conflict with cellular lipid membranes.[11] Prolonged exposure to high concentrations of ammonia in the air can trigger occupational asthma. [12]

Ammonia has many negative consequences in the environment. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, 188 million pounds of ammonia was released into water systems between 1990 and 1994. This amount of chemical waste released into the environment affects proximal ecosystems by settling near the source and depositing in soil in the gaseous phase with a lifetime of 24 hours.[10]

A concerning method of travel for ammonia occurs when it is in the particulate form. Ammonia may react with nitric and sulfuric acid to form particles that have a lifetime of 15 days and can travel farther distances. Consequently, areas that do not usually have high incidences of ammonia may be exposed to the compound via particulate travel.[11]

Environmental concerns regarding ammonia include its causes of eutrophication, soil acidification, fertilization of vegetation, and changes in the ecosystem.


An abundant source of nitrogen provides the essential building blocks for DNA synthesis that can result in dire consequences for the natural balance of ecosystems. Excessive ammonia provides the means for rapid plant growth and decay, resulting in anoxic conditions for plants and organisms that do not grow as fast. Weedy species are selected in systems polluted with ammonia as they can rapidly outgrow other species, reducing oxygen and nutrient resources for other organisms and plants.[10]

Soil acidification[edit]

The water in surface soil may react with ammonia to form ammonium and hydroxide. Nitrifying bacteria may metabolize the ammonium ions to form nitrite or nitrate, with an H+ ion as a byproduct. The cumulative metabolism of nitrifying bacteria results in an abundance of H+ ions in soil creating an acidic soil environment.[10]

Environmentally benign alternatives[edit]

Growing concerns about the immediate and long-term effects of cleaning agents regarding packaging, manufacturing and use of the products have invited methods of green cleaning. This type of cleaning involves the use of products that biodegrade into compounds that are environmentally friendly and do not pose detrimental environmental concerns. Many of these products include natural solvents such as citrus, seed and vegetable oils that can be safely recycled back into the environment.[4]

Naturally occurring substances that may replace synthesized cleaning products include vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda.[4] Lemon juice may be used as a degreaser in the place of cleaners that contain chemically active solvents such as 2-butoxyethanol. Vinegar is another popular replacement for acidic cleaners that kill most bacteria and germs because the acetic acid it contains can upset pH balance. Baking soda, sodium bicarbonate, is an alkaline, buffering compound that can replace cleaners as it neutralizes the pH of the surrounding environment. The neutralizing and buffering capacity of baking soda make it a very effective cleaning product that also refrains from negatively affecting the environment.[4]

Other alternatives have been produced that aim at decreasing other waste involved with cleaning. For example, some brands of laundry detergent are now being formulated for use with cold water. By allowing the consumer to use cold water rather than hot, each load cuts back significantly on energy costs.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "2-BUTOXYETHANOL and 2-BUTOXYETHANOL ACETATE CAS # 112-07-2 and 111-76-2" (PDF). U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, Public Health ServiceAgency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. August 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c Swan, S.H. et al. (2005). "Decrease in Anogenital Distance Among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure.". 113. Environmental Health Perspectives. pp. 1056–1061. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Warhurst, A. Michael (January 1995). "An Environmental Assessment of Alkylphenol Ethoxylates and Alkylphenols". 
  4. ^ a b c d Aguirre, Sarah. "Vinegar, Baking Soda, and Lemons". Housekeeping and Organization - Simple Tips and Tutorials to Clean and Organize Your Home. 
  5. ^ Yi, Li. "Phthalates: Should You Be Concerned?". Green Decade. 
  6. ^ "Prenatal Origins of Endocrine Disruption. Critical Windows of Development". TEDX. Retrieved 2011. 
  7. ^ National Pollutant Inventory Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. "National Pollutant Inventory - Dibutyl Phthalate: Environmental Effects". National Pollutant Inventory. 
  8. ^ Siegfried Rebsdat, Dieter Mayer "Ethylene Glycol" in Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2000.doi:10.1002/14356007.a10_101.
  9. ^ "Public Health Statement for 2-Butoxyethanol and 2-Butoxyethanol Acetate". Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 
  10. ^ a b c d "Impacts of Ammonia". Colorado State University. 
  11. ^ a b Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (2004). "ToxFAQs for Ammonia. Division of Toxicology, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services". 
  12. ^ "Occupational Asthma: Tips to Remember". American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. Retrieved 7 February 2015. 
  13. ^ Martin, Andrew et al. (2011). "For a Few, Focus on Green Products Pays Off". The New York Times.