With more than 30 years’ experience in the residential and commercial water treatment space, Mark Nelson is a Class 1 Drinking-Water Operator and a CBWA (Canadian Bottled Water Association) Certified Plant Operator. As founder and president of Nelson Water in Ottawa, Mark focuses on dealing with challenging water treatment system designs for problem water. He also heads the largest water bottling plant in the city of Ottawa with a delivery network throughout the Valley.

Water pollution is now a major cause for concern globally, and chemical pollution is a huge contributing factor. Studies have found that everyday household detergents make up a large part of this chemical pollution problem. Many of the laundry detergents that we use in our homes contain 35%-75% phosphate salts, and this can lead to a wide variety of water quality problems. Let’s take a closer look at how detergents are linked to chemical water pollution problems and how we can help to fix the problem.

The Polluting Nature of Everyday Detergents

Everyday detergents are one of the primary sources of chemical pollution found in water supplies today. A wide range of chemicals, including bleach and phosphates, are directly linked to water pollution along with microbes and other protozoa. Many of the chemicals that we’ve become used to using in our lives are actually harmful elements and compounds that have a dramatic effect on water quality. Everyday detergents also contain suspected carcinogens and ingredients that cannot fully biodegrade. So, these chemicals a health risk to humans, they will not break down in the environment, and they may be around for a long time to come.

The Effect of Phosphates on Organic Substances

We briefly mentioned phosphates in the introduction because they have properties that are particularly concerning from a water pollution perspective. A phosphate has properties that inhibit the biodegradation of organic substances, and non-biodegradable substances are incredibly polluting. If a substance is non-biodegradable, it cannot be eliminated or cleaned out of the water by private or public wastewater treatment.

Certain everyday detergents that contain phosphates could also cause eutrophication. This causes the water to be deprived of oxygen, and it will result in the death of organisms in that water due to oxygen depletion. Eutrophication will also cause an over enrichment of phosphates that will cause the affected body of water to become choked with an overgrowth of algae and certain other plants.

Surface Active Agents

All detergents are surface active agents; they can produce copious amounts of stable foam on the surfaces of our waterways. These foams are typically formed into a dense and thick layer that lingers for a very long time on the surface of the water. The foam may extend over a large body of several hundred square feet in size. These types of foam are a proven source of unhygienic domestic water for our homes.

The Environmental Hazards of Everyday Detergents

As we’ve seen, detergents many contain substances that reduce or inhibit the amount of available oxygen. This can cause a great deal of damage to marine animals and fish in our waterways. The health of marine life is a good indicator of the health of any body of water. When the fish and aquatic life is sick or dying it’s typically a sign that the water is extremely unhealthy and as we’ve seen it’s impossible to remove the chemical contaminants with standard water treatment methods.

The overstimulation of aquatic plant growth that mentioned above may on the surface seem like a good thing. After all, plants and algae are alive, and this has to be a good thing for the environment? Actually, the exact opposite is true; when aquatic plant life grows like this, the plant removes even more of the available oxygen from the water. Other life forms sharing that body of water will soon be affected as there will be little to no oxygen for them to sustain life, and they eventually die.

Detergents also contain a few more harmful substances, such as pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metal concentrations (lead, cadmium, and zinc). These are known as Anthropogenetic components, and together they will make the water cloudy, murky and turbid. This may not seem like much of a problem, but when water is less opaque, it tends to block light from traveling through it, and this is devastating to the environment. When sunlight is blocked, the growth of certain aquatic plants is disrupted, and the fish or aquatic mammals that may feed off those plants are denied a health food source. Increased turbidity in water can also impede the respiratory system of certain species of fish.

When bodies of water become toxic in these ways, the pathogens can cause a host of diseases that are dangerous for humans and animals alike. Some of these waterborne diseases can even be fatal to those with vulnerable immune systems. It’s also worth noting that the presence of these contaminants will also alter the chemical composition of water. So, the way that the affected water responds to factors, such as eutrophication, acidity, alkalinity, temperature, and even electrical conductivity, could all be radically different than you may imagine.

The Dangers to Human Health

Any drinking water contaminated with chemicals and everyday detergents can be a hazard to human health. Many people affected by chemically polluted water report health issues, such as nausea, stomach cramps, sore throat, skin irritation, and even liver damage. Using chemically polluted water can be poisonous, and in several documented cases, it has led to fatalities for the users. In fact, chemically contaminated water is not preferred for the growing of certain crops, such as wheat, rice, and soybeans.

In Conclusion

Water pollution is a serious problem, and many of the chemicals that we use in detergents and other domestic products are contributing to the problem. The chemicals used in everyday detergents can affect human and aquatic life alike and make our waterways unhealthy. Some detergents even contain lead, and this can make our water more acidic and toxic to use. Every person should consider switching to a biodegradable detergent that is friendlier to the environment. Look for a friendlier detergent that doesn’t contain phosphates and heavy metals. There are many eco-friendly alternatives available on the market, they are effective, kinder to the environment, and they don’t cost as much as you would imagine. Making small changes and sharing them with your family, friends, and local community can make a big difference to the health of our waterways.