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Virtuous Cycles
by Emily Main
Filed under: Cleaning supplies, Green home, Clothing and fabric, Green living, laundry products

Back in the day when washboards and clotheslines were the norm, a tub full of water and a bar of lye soap, sunlight, wind and a lot of elbow grease were the only things needed to clean, bleach and dry a load of clothes. But today's modern conveniences—mega-sized washers designed to launder for an NFL team, dryers that bake your clothes, detergents with their own muddy footprints—have upped the eco demands of this unavoidable task.
Awash in Chemicals
Thanks to government trade-secret laws, manufacturers of cleaners aren't required to disclose ingredients on product labels, making it difficult for consumers to choose an environmentally preferable and healthier alternative.
Although phosphates, still used in dishwashing detergents and known to promote algae growth that in turn suffocates aquatic life, have been phased out of laundry detergents, health risks remain with other laundry chemicals, most notably nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs). NPEs are surfactants (chemicals that help other ingredients penetrate dirt and grime) that belong to a class of hormone-disrupting compounds called alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs). Unfortunately, "It's added to lots of cleaning agents," says Jason Marshall, lab manager at the Toxics Use Reduction Institute.
Popular because they're inexpensive, petroleum-derived NPEs break down in the environment into nonylphenol, which harms the reproductive abilities and survival of fish. They also aren't easily removed by wastewater-treatment facilities; Sierra Club has detected NPEs in 61 percent of U.S. streams tested. Linear alkylbenzene sulfonate (LAS), a common surfactant used instead of or in conjunction with NPEs and often listed on ingredients as "anionic surfactants," doesn't fare much better environmentally. Like phosphates, LAS can deprive water of oxygen and kill aquatic life.
Fortunately, NPEs are slowly being phased out in the U.S., thanks to European Union efforts to remove them, says Marshall. "Companies don't want to make four different products with four different formulations," he says.
Environmental and health concerns aside, detergents containing NPEs are less effective than those without, according to Consumer Reports tests. Still, detergent manufacturers have yet to find a perfectly healthy replacement for LAS, NPEs and other APE surfactants. Alcohol ethoxylates derived from plant and vegetable oils have a lighter impact but are created using a process called "ethoxylation," which produces the probable human carcinogen 1,4-dioxane as a byproduct. Present in very small amounts in the final product, dioxane poses a serious cancer risk when inhaled at high levels in occupational settings.
Besides surfactants, petroleum-based synthetic dyes, fragrances and other chemicals are often added to detergents for aesthetic appeal. Synthetic fragrances may contain hormone-disrupting phthalates, which prevent the scent from dissipating but also provoke asthma and other respiratory problems (see "Body Burdened" A study published online at Environmental Health Perspectives this March suggested that phthalates also may be responsible for increased obesity in men. Optical brighteners, fluorescent chemicals used to make clothing appear cleaner, can rub off fabrics onto skin and cause rashes.
Detergents aren't the only beasts to contend with. In 2005, chlorine-based bleaches caused 19,581 poisonings in U.S. children under 6 years of age, according to the American Association of Poison Control Centers. After disappearing down drains, chlorine reacts with environmental organic matter, creating harmful organochlorines such as dioxin. In 2000, testing found high levels of dioxin in San Francisco Bay fed in part by bleach from residential laundry use.
Also, those seemingly innocuous floral fabric softeners emit, among other chemicals, neurotoxic toluene and trimethylbenzene, styrene (a possible carcinogen), the respiratory irritants phenol and xylene, and thymol, which can cause abdominal distress, according to a study in the May 2000 issue of the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health. But safer alternatives abound; see the checklist (right) for ideas.
When picking detergents or bleach, less is best. "People should choose the simplest product that works well for them," says Philip Dickey, staff scientist at the Washington Toxics Coalition. "None of [the fragrances, dyes or brighteners] have any effect on how clean clothing is, in terms of removing soil and stains," he adds.
Don't be fooled either by undefined, non-verified labels such as "non-toxic," "biodegradable" and "organic" (only meaningful on food and some personal care products). When possible, choose products that disclose all ingredients on labels, as many eco-friendly product manufacturers do, and look for words that indicate what's not in the cleaner, i.e., "chlorine-free" and "no NPEs."
Water, Water Everywhere
Alongside those chemicals swirling down the drain, the machines in your laundry room may be washing resources and money away. Washing machines can use as much as 40 gallons of water per load, whereas Energy Star-rated machines use around half that.
Water conservation is crucial—and no longer just in the West. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) reports that cities nationwide are placing undue stress on groundwater supplies to support population and industrial growth, and that stress can lead to increased pumping that causes saltwater pools to infiltrate freshwater supplies. The World Wildlife Fund last March listed the Rio Grande as one of the world's 10 top rivers at risk, largely due to excessive water extraction that led to saltwater intrusion from the Gulf of Mexico; increased salinity has already displaced 32 of the river's 121 native marine species. "In any area of increased population, there'll be an increased demand for water," says Lynn Torak, USGS hydrologist, noting that most of the Atlantic seaboard, from Long Island, New York, into the Florida peninsula, faces this problem.
Switching from liquid detergents to powders is another easy way to reduce your water burden. "Laundry liquids contain a significant amount of water, presently 70 to 80 percent, soon to be reduced to 40 to 60 percent in double and triple compact concentrates," says Martin Wolf, director of product and environmental technology at Seventh Generation. "It costs energy and packaging to bring this water to the consumer," he says; that's unnecessary when your machine will add water on its own.
Live Free AND Dry
What's the most efficient, conservative—and free—tool in your laundry room? Sunlight. Not only is it a natural bleaching agent and disinfectant but line drying a single load of clothes saves approximately 2.6 kWh of electricity and prevents 3.35 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
Even so, line drying laundry isn't always practical. To tread lightly, and dryly, opt for a dryer with more efficient settings, such as a moisture sensor, which shuts the dryer off automatically when fabrics are dry, and an air-dry feature, which dries your clothes with cold air, cutting down on energy use and wrinkles. Also, set your washer on the fastest spin cycle—front-loading washers have the advantage of faster spin times—reducing the water in your clothes beforehand. Energy Star doesn't yet rate dryers, but Consumer Reports has found that gas dryers are cheaper to run and have a lighter eco impact.
To protect your health, avoid dryer sheets, which may be treated with the same harmful chemicals as those in liquid fabric softeners. These sheets and similar reusable cloths are also made from synthetic, petroleum-based chemicals that don't biodegrade in landfills. Some companies have introduced reusable products that will soften clothes and eliminate static cling; among the most advertised are dryer balls made from polyvinyl chloride, which releases carcinogenic dioxin during production and may release hormone-disrupting phthalates during use. Instead, reduce static cling by drying natural fibers and synthetics separately, or add one-fourth of a cup of white vinegar to the wash cycle.
One Last Wrinkle
Irons can consume up to 1,800 watts of energy, and if used for two hours, one iron emits 4.8 pounds of carbon dioxide. Line drying clothes, air drying with cold air or removing them from the dryer immediately will keep wrinkles to a minimum.
Furthermore, irons and ironing-board covers may be treated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which is used to prevent sticking and stains. Also used on clothes that claim to be stain- and wrinkle-repellent, PFOA is a persistent chemical that has been detected in the blood of virtually all Americans (see It was found in 2004 to cause cancer in lab animals, and while DuPont, the only manufacturer of PFOA in the U.S., disputed those findings, the company agreed to eliminate the chemical by 2015.
To prevent your cleaning chores from getting too dirty, choose the alternative laundry products listed in our checklist (above). And if you're inspired to return to simpler times, that bucket and washing board are still worthy options. Plus, spring's warmer weather freshens up line-dried clothes better than any chemical.

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2,079 Posts
that was very interesting and timely, oddly enough we were just discussing anionic cleaners in my chemistry class today. my dryer balls split in half and i was considering buying new ones but maybe i will just stick to the vinegar rinse i have been using.

589 Posts
Wow! Thanks:listen:
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