Environmental impact of cleaning agents

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Environmental impacts of cleaning agents are the consequences of chemical compounds in cleaning products. The human impact on the environment has produced a range of unnatural compounds that have been specifically developed to achieve the goals of the consumer. Synthetic 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. Increased focus concerning the impact of cleaning products has emerged as developmental and endocrine disruptors have been linked to cleaning agents.[1][2] Some chemicals have been found to alter gene function.[citation needed] Altered gene function often leads to changes in an organism's proper development, with negative consequences to animal populations, e.g. resulting from 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 skin and eye irritation, that occur upon contact. In 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.[3]

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/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.[2]


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.[2]

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.[2]

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.[2]

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.[4] It has the further advantage of not bioaccumulating.[5]

Environmentally benign alternatives[edit]

Green 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.[3]

Naturally occurring substances that may replace synthetic cleaning products include vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda.[3] 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.[3]

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.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Swan, S.H.; et al. (2005). "Decrease in Anogenital Distance Among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure.". 113. Environmental Health Perspectives. pp. 1056–1061. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Warhurst, A. Michael (January 1995). "An Environmental Assessment of Alkylphenol Ethoxylates and Alkylphenols". 
  3. ^ a b c d Aguirre, Sarah. "Vinegar, Baking Soda, and Lemons". Housekeeping and Organization - Simple Tips and Tutorials to Clean and Organize Your Home. 
  4. ^ Siegfried Rebsdat, Dieter Mayer "Ethylene Glycol" in Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2000.doi:10.1002/14356007.a10_101.
  5. ^ "Public Health Statement for 2-Butoxyethanol and 2-Butoxyethanol Acetate". Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. 
  6. ^ Martin, Andrew; et al. (2011). "For a Few, Focus on Green Products Pays Off". The New York Times.