Environmental impact of cleaning agents

Environmental impact of cleaning agents

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 can either result from molecules that have biodegraded into more dangerous compounds, are directly contained in the product or enter the environment through leaching from the containers of the cleaning agent. Increased focus concerning the impact of cleaning products has emerged as developmental and endocrine disruptors have been linked to cleaning agents. 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 deleterious effects for the organism that may result in devastation to animal populations leading to the upset of total ecosystems. Consumers who are concerned for their own health have growing fears that have initiated from overwhelming evidence of developmental and endocrine disruption. 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 to cleaning that makes use of environmentally friendly chemistry that can be as effective as the chemicals contained in cleaning products.


Impacts of Packaging Material


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 adversaries 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. [1]


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. Pthalates 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.

Potential Effects

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. [3]

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

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

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

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. [4]


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. [4]

Potential Effects

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. [4]

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

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. [4]

2-butoxylethanol, Ethylene glycol monobutyl ether (EGBE)

2-butoxyethanol is a common glycol ether used as a solvent in carpet, hard-surface, glass and oven cleaners with toxicity that is dose-dependent. [5] Dose-related effects of this chemical present hazards to the central nervous system, blood, liver, and kidneys. Occupational exposure to 2-butoxyethanol is responsible for the increased awareness towards the health effects of this compound as floor care workers are highly vulnerable to its negative effects. Negative environmental impacts are few as it is easily biodegradable and is minimally toxic for aquatic organisms.


2-butoxyethanol is a nonvolatile compound that poses health risks when an individual experiences heavy exposure. The compound may be introduced to the body along respiratory, dermal or oral avenues. Environmental exposure is promoted by human activity. [5]

Potential Effects

Inhalation of elevated levels of 2-butoxyethanol has been associated with toxic effects to the liver, kidneys, lungs and red blood cells. In occupational settings, workers who inhale 2-butoxyethanol have experienced skin, eye and nose irritation. No studies have been conducted examining the reproductive, developmental or carcinogenic effects on humans. In animals, however, 2-butoxyethanol was found to reduce the number of offspring in female rat and rabbit litters after high-dosage exposure via inhalation. It was also found that high-dosage ingestion during rat and rabbit pregnancy resulted in peculiar vaginal bleeding and fewer offspring. Though heavy exposure of 2-butoxyethanol may harm individuals, environmental effects are negligent as 2-butoxyethanol easily biodegrades and presents low toxicity to aquatic animals. [6]


Ammonia is a corrosive compound with alkaline properties that are useful in cleaning products as it is readily dissolved in water to form ammonium, NH4+, and hydroxide. Ammonia, NH3+, is a biological provider of nitrogen, a precursor to amino acids. Ammonia naturally occurs in the environment through the nitrogen cycle of bacteria. Household cleaning products may contain 5-10% of ammonia as a higher concentration could lead to injury. Ammonia does not bioaccumulate, however, it is toxic in high doses. [7]


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. [7]

Potential Effects

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. [8]

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. [7]

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. [8]

Environmental concerns regarding ammonia include its causes of eutrophcation, 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. [7]

Soil acidification

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. [7]

Current Research

Growing concerns about the immediate and long-term effects of cleaning agents regarding packaging, manufacturing and use of the products has 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. [9]

Avoiding cleaning chemicals

Naturally occurring substances that may replace synthesized cleaning products include vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda. [9] 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 that 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. [9]


  1. ^ Yi, Li. "Phthalates: Should You Be Concerned?"". Green Decade. http://www.greendecade.org/news/news_phthalates.html. 
  2. ^ a b 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. ^ National Pollutant Inventory Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities. "National Pollutant Inventory - Dibutyl Phthalate: Environmental Effects". National Pollutant Inventory. http://www.npi.gov.au/substances/dibutyl-phthalate/environmental.html. 
  4. ^ a b c d Warhurst, A. Michael (January 1995). An Environmental Assessment of Alkylphenol Ethoxylates and Alkylphenols. 
  5. ^ a b "2-BUTOXYETHANOL and 2-BUTOXYETHANOL ACETATE CAS # 112-07-2 and 111-76-2". U.S. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, Public Health ServiceAgency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. August 2009. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/tfacts118.pdf. 
  6. ^ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease, National Center for Environmental Health. (March 2008). Public Health Statement for 2-Butoxyethanol and 2-Butoxyethanol Acetate. http://www.eoearth.org/article/Public_Health_Statement_for_2-Butoxyethanol_and_2-Butoxyethanol_Acetate. 
  7. ^ a b c d e "Impacts of Ammonia". Colorado State University. http://ammoniabmp.colostate.edu/link%20pages/impacts%20of%20ammonia.html. 
  8. ^ a b Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (2004). ToxFAQs for Ammonia. Division of Toxicology, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 
  9. ^ a b c Aguirre, Sarah. "Vinegar, Baking Soda, and Lemons". Housekeeping and Organization - Simple Tips and Tutorials to Clean and Organize Your Home.. http://housekeeping.about.com/od/environment/a/vinbaklemons.htm. 

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