There’s nothing like a fresh load of clean, sweet-smelling laundry. Unfortunately, underneath those pleasant aromas and squeaky cleanliness hides a dirty secret. Run-of-the-mill grocery store laundry detergents are little more than a slurry of toxic chemicals. They get the job done, but at the cost of you and your family’s health.
What’s more, most people don’t even realize just how many chemicals are in these products. You won’t normally find them on the label, and manufacturers aren’t required by law to list them. The toxicity of these substances ranges from fairly mild effects, like allergies and skin irritation, to serious ones, like neurological diseases and cancer, and developmental disorders in children. Here are some of the most commonly used laundry detergent chemicals and their potential dangers.
Any laundry detergent chemical formula featuring stain removers will almost always contain surfactants called alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APEs). These allow stain-causing particles to be washed away more effectively. However, the FDA warns that these surfactants may disturb proper hormone function, which could cause infertility, early or late puberty, growth problems and reproductive cancers.
These chemicals work by reacting with ultraviolet light, which makes whites look whiter. Brightening agents are known to be phototoxic. This means that exposure to sunlight can trigger an allergic reaction on any skin it came into contact with. Furthermore, many experts also suspect that brightening agents could cause bacteria to mutate into more dangerous strains.
You may be more familiar with petroleum distillates in the forms of kerosene, naphtha and paint thinner. Many decades ago, these substances were used to clean laundry, but the practice was stopped because of the health and safety hazards the chemicals presented. Unfortunately, they’re still used in today’s laundry detergents. The possible effects of exposure include respiratory damage, cancer and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat.
Also known as sodium hypochlorite, this toxic corrosive substance is responsible for the vast majority of household poisonings. It’s highly reactive and often produces even more dangerous substances when it comes into contact with other cleaners like ammonia, vinegar and rubbing alcohol. Long-term exposure to bleach and its fumes can result in hormonal disorders, reproductive issues, respiratory problems and immune suppression.
This substance is used as a preservative, water softener and foaming stabilizer. Also known by ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid or disodium EDTA, lab studies have found the chemical to be both cytotoxic and genotoxic. This means that EDTA causes damage to the body’s cellular and DNA structures, a major risk factor for developing cancer and degenerative illnesses.
These artificial aromas are often highly volatile, causing severe allergies for many people. They can also suppress the immune system and may promote cancers of the skin and lungs.
This vapors from this extremely harsh chemical can burn the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. Repeated exposure has been known to cause cataracts, damage to the corneas, pneumonia and chronic bronchitis.
Like bleach, this substance is corrosive and can irritate the skin, airways and mucus membranes. It has also been linked to asthma and increased frequency of attacks.
Those products that make your clothes so soft may seem like magic, but it’s more like mad science. To achieve the softness, fabric softeners contain phthalates, petroleum-based chemicals that, in most other applications, are used to make plastics supple and pliable. Phthalates have demonstrated strong links to allergies, asthma, skin rashes, irritation of mucus membranes and headaches, as well as developmental delays in children. They are also potent endocrine disruptors suspected to cause birth defects, infertility, precocious puberty, menstrual irregularities and numerous forms of cancer.
Increasing fears over exposure to bacteria, and our collective obsession with sanitation, has lead to the addition of antimicrobial substances to many common household products. Triclosan is the most widely used chemical for this application, and is found in many household products, including your laundry detergent. Some studies have linked triclosan, among other antimicrobials, with an increased incidence of food allergies and intolerances. This though to be from depriving the immune system of contact with environmental pathogens, so it never learns to distinguish an actual threat from a harmless substance. Instead, the immune system goes haywire, attacking otherwise harmless materials at random, possibly including its own cells.
Other research has found that triclosan can cause skin problems and allergic hypersensitivity. In addition, triclosan reacts with chlorine in tap water to produce chloroform, an extremely dangerous chemical. Chloroform has been known to cause cardiac arrhythmias, heart failure, liver cancer, kidney cancer and liver failure.