After bubbly cleaning liquids disappear down our drains, they are treated along with sewage and other waste water 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. In a May 2002 study of contaminants in stream water samples across the country, the U.S. Geological Survey found persistent detergent metabolites in 69% of streams tested. Sixty-six percent contained disinfectants.

The detergent metabolites the USGS detected were members of a class of chemicals called alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). APEs, which include nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates, are surfactants, or “surface active agents” that are key to detergents’ effectiveness. They are added to some laundry detergents, disinfectants, laundry stain removers, and citrus cleaner/degreasers. When discharged in municipal waste water, nonylphenol ethoxylates and octylphenol ethoxylates break down into nonylphenol and octylphenol, which are more toxic and do not readily biodegrade in soil and water. 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. APE pollution may be threatening fish in the U.S. as well, for octylphenol and nonylphenol were the detergent metabolites that the USGS detected in 69% of streams tested here. Such ubiquity may not bode well for humans, either: the APE p-nonylphenol has also caused estrogen-sensitive breast cancer cells to proliferate in test tubes.

Another famous water pollutant is phosphates, water-softening mineral additives that were once widely used in laundry detergents and other cleaners. When 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. Although many states have banned phosphates from laundry detergents and some other cleaners, they are still used in automatic dishwasher detergents.

Another environmental concern with cleaning product is that many use chemicals that are petroleum-based, contributing to the depletion of this non-renewable resource and increasing our nation’s dependence on imported oil.

The plastic bottles used to package cleaning product 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, denoted by the #2 inside the recycling triangle) 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 as a byproduct a potent carcinogen, dioxin, during production and incineration. As a final insult, most sanitation departments do not accept PVC for recycling; less than 1% of all PVC is recycled each year.

Household Cleaning Supplies


What to look for

A few safe, simple ingredients like soap, water, baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and borax, aided by a little elbow grease and a coarse sponge for scrubbing, can take care of most household cleaning needs. And they can save you lots of money wasted on unnecessary, specialized cleaners! For that reason, we’ve provided recipes for do-it-yourself cleaners under most product categories (See Product Comparisons).