Laundry Detergents & Pollution

You don't have to choose between a healthy environment and clean clothes.
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In the quest to get whites their whitest and keep colors bright, you could be contributing to air and water pollution that affects both human health and the environment. Yes, your choice of laundry detergent can have a direct impact on the quality and health of your local lakes, streams and water supply. Understanding how different chemicals and other ingredients can affect the Earth can help you make informed, Earth-friendly choices in the laundry detergent aisle.


Laundry detergent has contributed to environmental pollution ever since it was first introduced during the early 20th century. For years, detergent makers used chemicals called phosphates to make their products. When the phosphates used in detergents enter local water supplies, they provide nutrients for marine plants, resulting in algae population explosions. The algae use up the oxygen in the water, leaving none left for fish and other animals to breathe. These bodies of water become barren habitats and unsuitable for human recreation.

By the 1990s, many states banned phosphates in detergents. In 1994, the detergent industry agreed to strictly limit or remove phosphates from their products. Water tests performed in the 1970s showed that the level of phosphates in wastewater jumped to nearly four times the level of the 1940s. After the phosphate bans of the 1990s, levels dropped by more than half.

Pollution Concerns

Though you won't find phosphates in most U.S. laundry detergents, many of these products contain other substances known to pollute the environment. Nonylphenol ethoxylates and other chemicals used to make detergents are toxic to marine life. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they also affect human development and reproduction .

Sodium perborate and other detergent bleach products can irritate the nose, eyes, lungs and skin and might affect reproductive health. Some dyes used in laundry detergents are toxic to fish and other aquatic life; others are known carcinogens, according to the EPA.

Indoor Air Quality

Many of the concerns about laundry detergents relate to how they affect the water supply or marine life after they leave your home. However, laundry detergents can also damage air quality in and around your home.

Science Daily reports a study of dryer vent exhaust gas, which found traces of many organic compounds, including carcinogens such as acetaldehyde and benzene. These compounds, which are used to scent some popular brands of laundry detergent, decrease air quality indoors and contribute to air and water pollution in the environment.


You'll find many eco-friendly detergents on the market that claim to protect the environment. When you compare detergents to spot potentially harmful ingredients, read labels carefully. To quickly identify more Earth-friendly laundry detergent options, look for products bearing the EPA Design for the Environment seal. Detergents with this seal are free of inorganic phosphates and contain only surfactants that minimize environmental pollution when they go into solution. To protect your family's health, WebMD recommends seeking out laundry detergents that are fragrance-free or scented without the use of petroleum by-products.

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