Manataka American Indian Council


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Personal Health

Laundry detergent and fabric softener ingredients pose a variety of health risks, ranging from relatively minor—like skin irritants and allergens—to the severe—cancer, poisoning and neurological problems. Knowing which ingredients to avoid, however, will help you control the number of toxins entering your home.


Laundry Detergents

Laundry detergents and laundry stain removers frequently contain alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs), which are common surfactants. Surfactants, or surface active agents, are chemicals that make surfaces more susceptible to water, allowing cleaners to easily penetrate stains and wash them away. APEs can damage the immune system, and they're suspected hormone disruptors, which means they can mimic hormones in the body that regulate reproduction and development. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also warned that ethoxylated alcohol surfactants, such as APEs, may be contaminated with carcinogenic 1,4-dioxane, which penetrates skin. Tests conducted in 1997 by the Washington Toxics Coalition found that supermarket or drugstore labels are more likely to contain APEs than name brands.


Linear alkylate sulfonate (LAS), another surfactant used in laundry powders and liquids, causes contact dermatitis, respiratory irritation and, if ingested, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. It is also corrosive to the eyes. In the environment, LAS substance decomposes on heating, producing toxic and corrosive fumes such as sulfur oxides.


Phosphates are water-softening mineral additives that were once widely used in laundry detergents and are sometimes referred to as builders, ingredients that enhance the performance of surfactants. Sodium tripolyphosphate, one of the more common phosphates used, can cause nausea, vomiting and diarrhea if ingested, and because it is corrosive, it can cause severe skin irritation. Because of their damaging environmental impact (see below), many states have banned the use of phosphates in laundry detergents; as a result most mainstream detergent manufacturers have eliminated them. However, on products that do use them, the percentage used should be disclosed on labels.


The fragrances in detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets may provoke skin irritation, allergic reactions and asthma, and they can contain phthalates, chemicals that have been linked to cancer and reproductive system harm in lab tests. Unless they are labeled otherwise, laundry detergents contain synthetic fragrances. Fragrances can cling to fabrics for weeks after washing and may cause stuffy nose, sneezing, headache and other allergic symptoms in sensitive individuals, especially on clothing or bedding that's in close proximity to nose and mouth for extended periods of time.


Other ingredients turn dangerous when combined: Diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), which are found in liquid detergents and used to cut through oils, can react with nitrites (an often-undisclosed preservative) to form carcinogenic nitrosamines.


Bleaching Agents

Chlorine bleach, otherwise known as sodium hypochlorite, is highly caustic and may cause skin irritation and redness. Its fumes can irritate eyes, nose and airways, and it can be fatal if swallowed. According to the EPA, 26,338 children were exposed to or poisoned by household chlorine bleach in 2002. Chlorine also poses a hazard because it can react with other cleaners to form toxic gases. If mixed with cleaners containing ammonia, chlorinated cleaning products form lung-damaging chloramine gases. Chlorine mixed with acids, such as those in some toilet bowl cleaners, can form toxic chlorine gas, which damages airways.


When released to waterways, chlorine bleach can create organochlorines that can contaminate drinking water. Organochlorines, which are suspected carcinogens as well as reproductive, neurological and immune-system toxins, have also been known to cause developmental disorders.


Another common bleach used in detergents is sodium perborate, which is a skin, eye and respiratory irritant. Ingestion of products containing sodium perborate can result in vomiting, nausea and diarrhea.


Fabric Softeners

Fabric softeners can build up on clothing, making them look dull. They also hinder the absorptive abilities of towels, so if you do choose to use them on other clothing, never use them on towels. In terms of health risks, however, a study in the May 2000 issue of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health found that they emit, among other chemicals, the neurotoxins toluene and trimethylbenzene, styrene (a possible carcinogen), the respiratory irritants phenol and xylene, and thymol, which can cause abdominal distress.



Waterways and Aquatic Life

After bubbly detergents disappear down our drains, they are treated along with sewage and other wastewater at municipal treatment plants, then discharged into nearby waterways. Most ingredients in chemical cleaners break down into harmless substances during treatment or soon afterward. Others, however, do not, threatening water quality or fish and other wildlife. Chlorine bleach combines with carbon molecules, creating harmful organochlorines such as dioxin. In 2000, the EPA found that the San Francisco Bay, which had high levels of dioxin, was being fed by municipal gray water that included, in large part, laundry water containing fabric-bleaching chemicals.


In a May 2002 study of contaminants in stream water samples across the country, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found persistent detergent metabolites, which are detergent chemicals that have passed through microorganisms, in 69 percent of streams tested. Sixty-six percent contained disinfectants.


The detergent metabolites the USGS detected were APEs, including nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates. When discharged in municipal wastewater, nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates break down into nonylphenol and octylphenol, which are more toxic and do not readily biodegrade in soil and water. The presence of APEs have been shown to mimic the hormone estrogen, and their presence in water may be harming the reproduction and survival of salmon and other fish. For example, in Britain, researcher John Sumpter discovered that male fish exposed to APEs in rivers were producing female egg-yolk proteins.


According to the USGS, 3,500 kilograms of LAS are dumped into the Mississippi River basin every day, depriving water of oxygen and killing aquatic life.


Surfactants of all types are harmful to the environment because they don't biodegrade quickly. As they build up in ground water, they deprive the soil of moisture, essentially creating "water-repellant soil" that hinders the growth of plants.


When water-softening phosphates enter waterways, they act as a fertilizer, spawning overgrowth of algae. This overabundance of aquatic plant life eventually depletes the water's oxygen supply, killing off fish and other organisms.


The bleaching ingredient sodium perborate has been shown to harm aquatic life and to emit toxic fumes when heated during incineration.


Solid Waste

The plastic bottles used to package cleaning products pose another environmental problem by contributing to the mounds of solid waste that must be landfilled, incinerated or, in not enough cases, recycled. Most cleaners are bottled in high-density polyethylene (HDPE, #2) or polyethylene terephthalate (PETE, #1) which are accepted for recycling in a growing number of communities. However, some are bottled in polyvinyl chloride (PVC, #3). PVC, otherwise known as vinyl, is made from cancer-causing chemicals such as vinyl chloride, and it forms dioxin, a potent carcinogen, as a byproduct during production and incineration.


As a final insult, most sanitation departments do not accept PVC for recycling; less than one percent of all PVC is recycled each year.


As a general environmental precaution, most laundry detergents, fabric softeners and stain removers are made from petroleum, contributing to the depletion of this non-renewable resource and increasing our nation's dependence on imported oil.


Dryer sheets are not made of readily biodegradable materials and pile up in landfills. Some companies have introduced re-usable products that will soften clothes and eliminate static cling; among the most advertised are dryer balls made from PVC, which as stated earlier, releases cancer-causing chemicals during production. Another alternative are so-called "static eliminator" dryer sheets that are made from polyester, itself made of non-renewable petroleum.



Laundry equipment consumes vast amounts of energy and water to clean a load of clothing. On average, washers are the second-largest water user in the home, consuming 40 gallons per load. According to the Energy Information Administration, dryers annually consume 1,079 kilowatt hours per household of energy, the production of which contributes up to 2,224 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas that adds to global warming.


~Submitted by Sheri Burnett