Environmental impact of cleaning products

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Environmental impacts of cleaning products entail the consequences that come as a result of chemical compounds in cleaning products. Cleaning agents can be bioactive with consequences ranging from mild to severe. These cleaning products can contain harmful chemicals that have detrimental impacts on the environment. Developmental and endocrine disruptors have been linked to cleaning agents.[1][2]

Chemicals & their impact[edit]

Alkylphenol ethoxylates[edit]

Alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) are widely used in household products such as detergents and all-purpose cleaning products. These specific chemicals are found in 55% of the household cleaning market.[3] They are susceptible to microbial or photochemical degradation into alkylphenols: lipophilic, hormone mimicking compounds.[2] Alkylphenol ethoxylates have been directly linked to endocrine disruption. 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 the 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] ]


Triclosan (TCS) is an anti-microbial chemical that is commonly used in households as an anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent found in soaps, detergents, and other disinfectants.[4] 96% of household products that contain TCS is eventually discarded down the drain.[4] Thus, TCS is mostly found in aquatic environments, and levels have been tested throughout the US to determine the amounts that are present in the environment. The most notable levels of TCS were found in wastewater (up to 26.2 μg concentration) and extremely high in biosolids found in sewage sludge (up to 35,000 μg concentration).[4] After this wastewater is treated, significant levels of up to 2.7 μg concentration of TCS are still found in water.[4] TCS poses an environmental threat due to its environmental accumulation and persistence, as it is impossible to be removed in its entirety. Overall, TCS is found in 57.6% of all rivers and streams tested throughout the US. In addition, TCS levels are transferred through the water into marine life. Other chemicals that come as a bi-product of TCS are known as degradation products.[4] During wastewater treatment, Methyltriclosan (MTCS) is produced as a result of methylation of TCS, which is not biodegradable and incredibly persistent throughout the environment.[4] In addition, the transformation of TCS during manufacturing leads to the production of dioxins into aquatic habitats. Dioxins have been proven to cause cancer as well as immense developmental issues in almost every vertebrate species.[5] Most notably, TCS has been found in aquatic snails and algae, with levels tested of 500μg kg−1 and 1400μg kg−1.[4] Similarly, MTCS has also been found to bioaccumulate in species, and in aquatic snails and algae, they were tested to have 1200μg kg−1.[4] Thus, the presence of triclosan in the water can pose immense threats to aquatic life as it bioaccumulates.

Triclosan chemical structure & common labeling.

Sodium Hypochlorite (household bleach)[edit]

Sodium Hypochlorite (SH) is the chemical commonly known as household bleach. SH is a strong chemical used for anti-microbial purposes. Bleach is also a common ingredient in formulas to unclog drains, to wash clothing, and to clean toilets. This means that it is being poured directly into wastewater, which bioaccumulates and cannot be fully filtered out.[6] This chemical poses environmental hazards because it reacts to cause halogenated volatile organic compounds (VOCs).[6] Such emissions react with other chemicals to cause the destruction of stratospheric ozone.[6] Sodium Hypochlorite also has carcinogenic properties, which can be cancerous for living organisms. Thus, this chemical contributes greatly to the accumulation of air pollution and smog formation.[7]

Sources of Volatile Organic Compounds. "Solvent use" is the source that originates from cleaning chemicals.

Ammonium Hydroxide (Ammonia)[edit]

Ammonia is a disinfecting chemical that is used in household cleaning products. The most common cleaning products that contain ammonia are floor cleaners and glass cleaners.[8] Ammonia is a significant air pollutant that has accumulated throughout the US. Ammonia is a primary source of nitrogen oxide, which has implications for biodiversity because of toxic implications to plants, which are a food source for many organisms.[9] The ammonia that is not absorbed by plants goes through nitrification processes as a result of the bacteria in water, turning it into nitrates.[10] The presence of ammonium is integral to the nitrogen cycle, which negatively impacts the environment.[10]

Propellant Gas[edit]

Products that are packaged in aerosol cans contain a chemical known as propellant gas.[11] Almost always, this propellant gas is called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).[11] CFCs have been proven to damage the ozone layer and caused the ozone hole. Thus, in 1996, CFCs were banned directly as a result of the detrimental environmental impacts.[12] This ban came as a result of The Montreal Protocol of 1989, which called for action to reduce and eliminate ozone-depleting substances.[13] Following the ban of CFCs, aerosols are now filled with hydrocarbon or compressed gasses, which have been linked to cause VOCs, which are associated with smog and air pollution.[12]


Phosphates are commonly used as a detergent in a wide array of cleaning products.[14] The most prevalent form of phosphates that are found in household cleaners is pentasodium triphosphate (PTSP).[14] PTSP and other phosphates are unable to be fully removed during wastewater treatment. It has been linked to eutrophication, which entails excessive growth of algae, which absorbs all of the oxygen in the water.[15] Due to lack of oxygen, all aquatic life forms ranging from plants to marine animals will die. Eutrophication is a very serious environmental hazard that can rapidly destroy marine ecosystems, making it impossible for aquatic life to survive in the future.

Government regulation in the US[edit]

In terms of regulation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has headed the regulatory advancements in recent years. For example, in 1976, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was passed.[16] This act called for restrictions on some chemicals, mandatory ingredient reporting, and testing requirements. Some of the chemicals that were restricted included polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, lead-based paint, and radon.[16] Section 4 of this act called for testing of chemicals to determine any detrimental impacts that could come as a result. A sector of the EPA focused on "compliance monitoring," which ensures that companies are following the guidelines that have been put in place by the TSCA.[16] PCBs have been found in de-dusting agents, so the TCSA has proven important in the mitigation of this chemical in household cleaning. However, the TSCA is primarily focused towards industrial application of chemicals.

In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed, which regulates the wastewater standards and water quality expectations.[17] This act led to the implementation of the EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), which requires permits in order to discharge pollutants into the water.[17] This allows for a much stricter regulation regarding the quantities of pollutants that can be discarded.


Aerosol cans[edit]

This chart compares the greatest sources of plastic waste, with packaging largely at the forefront of the issue.

Another prevalent issue with household cleaning products is the packaging that it comes in. As aforementioned, products packaged in aerosol cans currently contain chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which damages the ozone layer.[11] New aerosol cans that cannot contain the banned CFCs now contain hydrocarbon, which has been linked to the production of VOCs, which contribute greatly to air pollution.[12] In addition, an immense issue with the current packaging of household cleaning products is the lack of ability to biodegrade.[18]

Plastic Packaging[edit]

The vast majority of all household product packaging comes in plastic. These common plastics are not biodegradable and accumulate in our oceans.[18]

Aquatic Impact[edit]

Overall, it is approximated that there are up to hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic in surface waters.[18] This plastic debris becomes incredibly detrimental to aquatic wildlife. The debris can entangle species or aquatic animals can eat the plastic, which can lead to poisoning and often death.[18] Plastic can also cause immense damage to the ocean floor and negatively disturb the ecosystem.

The aquatic impact of plastic waste.

Environmentally-friendly alternatives[edit]

The EPA suggests purchasing products with recyclable packaging, refillable bottles, and concentrated formulas.[7] Another way to minimize packaging waste is by buying in bulk containers. The EPA cautions against buying anything with packaging that utilizes aerosol sprays or wasteful abundance of packaging.[7]

Environmentally benign chemical alternatives[edit]

Alternative cleaning chemicals can be utilized in households without compromising its ability to clean effectively. The EPA has provided criterion for avoiding environmentally detrimental chemicals in household cleaning. They suggest choosing products with a low VOC content, biodegradability, and those that utilize renewable resources

With the aim of decreasing net efficiency, some brands of laundry detergent have been reformulated for use with cold water. By allowing the consumer to use cold water rather than hot, each load cuts back significantly on energy costs.[19] The EPA suggests using products that are designed for use in cold water to conserve energy.[7]

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.[20] It has the further advantage of not bioaccumulating.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Swan, S.H.; et al. (2005). "Decrease in Anogenital Distance Among Male Infants with Prenatal Phthalate Exposure". Environmental Health Perspectives. 113. Environmental Health Perspectives (8): 1056–1061. doi:10.1289/ehp.8100. PMC 1280349. PMID 16079079.
  2. ^ a b c Warhurst, A. Michael (January 1995). "An Environmental Assessment of Alkylphenol Ethoxylates and Alkylphenols". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  3. ^ Staples, Charles A.; Weeks, John; Hall, Jerry F.; Naylor, Carter G. (1998). "Evaluation of aquatic toxicity and bioaccumulation of C8- and C9-alkylphenol ethoxylates". Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. 17 (12): 2470–2480. doi:10.1002/etc.5620171213. ISSN 1552-8618.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Dann, Andrea B.; Hontela, Alice (2011). "Triclosan: environmental exposure, toxicity and mechanisms of action". Journal of Applied Toxicology. 31 (4): 285–311. doi:10.1002/jat.1660. ISSN 1099-1263. PMID 21462230.
  5. ^ "Dioxins". National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Retrieved 2020-03-09.
  6. ^ a b c Odabasi, Mustafa; Elbir, Tolga; Dumanoglu, Yetkin; Sofuoglu, Sait C. (2014-08-01). "Halogenated volatile organic compounds in chlorine-bleach-containing household products and implications for their use". Atmospheric Environment. 92: 376–383. Bibcode:2014AtmEn..92..376O. doi:10.1016/j.atmosenv.2014.04.049. hdl:11147/4607. ISSN 1352-2310.
  7. ^ a b c d US EPA, OCSPP (2014-11-20). "Greening Your Purchase of Cleaning Products: A Guide For Federal Purchasers". US EPA. Retrieved 2020-03-09.
  8. ^ Fedoruk, Marion J.; Bronstein, Rod; Kerger, Brent D. (November 2005). "Ammonia exposure and hazard assessment for selected household cleaning product uses". Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology. 15 (6): 534–544. doi:10.1038/sj.jea.7500431. ISSN 1559-064X. PMID 16030526.
  9. ^ "Agricultural ammonia emissions carry steep costs". www.rand.org. Retrieved 2020-03-11.
  10. ^ a b "Ecological Effects of Ammonia | Minnesota Department of Agriculture". www.mda.state.mn.us. Retrieved 2020-03-11.
  11. ^ a b c June 9, Jay Rawcliffe; Am, 2017 at 11:06. "Environmental impacts". Green Choices. Retrieved 2020-03-09.
  12. ^ a b c "Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs): Your Environment, Your Health | National Library of Medicine". Tox Town. Retrieved 2020-03-09.
  13. ^ Ritchie, Hannah; Roser, Max (2018-04-05). "Ozone Layer". Our World in Data.
  14. ^ a b Gilbert, P. A.; DeJong, A. L. (13–15 September 1977). "The use of phosphate in detergents and possible replacements for phosphate". Ciba Foundation Symposium. Novartis Foundation Symposia (57): 253–268. doi:10.1002/9780470720387.ch14. ISBN 9780470720387. ISSN 0300-5208. PMID 249679.
  15. ^ "Eutrophication". European Environment Agency. Retrieved 2020-03-11.
  16. ^ a b c US EPA, OA (2013-02-22). "Summary of the Toxic Substances Control Act". US EPA. Retrieved 2020-02-26.
  17. ^ a b US EPA, OA (2013-02-22). "Summary of the Clean Water Act". US EPA. Retrieved 2020-03-11.
  18. ^ a b c d Ritchie, Hannah; Roser, Max (2018-09-01). "Plastic Pollution". Our World in Data.
  19. ^ Martin, Andrew; et al. (2011). "For a Few, Focus on Green Products Pays Off". The New York Times.
  20. ^ Siegfried Rebsdat, Dieter Mayer "Ethylene Glycol" in Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim, 2000. doi:10.1002/14356007.a10_101.