As we highlighted in our Water Wise blog post a few months ago, South Africa is a semi-arid country which, even in the wet season, does not receive an abundance of water, and often not enough to sustain our heavily populated cities through the dry season. South Africa’s water challenges are not only associated with QUANTITY but also with QUALITY. We are fortunate enough to be one of the few countries in the world where, on the whole, it is safe to turn on a tap and drink the water that pours out! However, as the water quality in our rivers continues to deteriorate this may not always be the case.
According to the CSIR, 84% of the river ecosystems associated with South Africa’s largest rivers are considered to be in a critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable condition. Our river systems are becoming increasingly polluted by the mining, industrial and agricultural sectors, as well as the growing number of poorly managed municipal sewage treatment plants, across the country.
Have you ever wondered what impact your daily activities may be having on our already stressed water systems? Every time you shower, do the dishes, wash your clothes or brush your teeth, the cleaning products you use get washed down the drain and ultimately end up accumulating in our river systems. The various substances that we use to keep ourselves and our houses clean constantly add to water pollution in our rivers, because they contain harmful chemicals. Fully operational municipal sewage treatment plants are pretty good at removing the organic waste from our water, but they are often not equipped to remove all the chemicals which accumulate in the water we pour down the drain. Chemicals that aren’t removed at sewage treatment plants are then discharged into our rivers, which may impact aquatic life and end up in our drinking water downstream.
Chemicals found in cleaning and cosmetic products may not only be bad for the environment, but studies show they may also be bad for YOU! Below are some of the most common ‘nasties’ to look out for in commercial cleaning and beauty products that we use every day.
Most of our cleaning products contain chemicals called foaming agents, which make soaps lather or foam. We have come to believe that the foamier a soap product is, the better it must be working – but this is NOT TRUE! The most commonly used foaming agents are cocamide DEA, MEA or TEA and studies have shown that these chemicals can be linked to cancer and tumours. Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate is used as a lathering agent in 90% of our commercial shampoos, as well as skin creams and some brands of toothpaste. Studies indicate that skin contact with sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate can leave a residue in the heart, liver, lungs and brain. That means once it enters your body (which it most certainly does before you have time to rinse it off) some of it never leaves, causing a slow build-up of chemicals inside you.
Parabens are a very common preservative in cosmetic products. They are endocrine disrupters, which can mimic our natural hormones. Although they have been used in products for a very long time and are approved by many authorities (ie. FDA), they are very controversial and studies have shown they may have links to cases of breast cancer.
Similarly half of all consumer products contain commercial “fragrance” or “parfum”. Studies have shown that some of the chemicals used in soap fragrances can cause skin diseases, birth defects and even liver damage. More than 3,000 chemicals add fragrance to consumer goods worldwide. Nearly 200 of those chemicals are voluntarily restricted by the fragrance industry. The U.N. has designated a third of fragrance chemicals as dangerous. Seven are possible carcinogens, and 15 have been banned from Europe. None are required to be disclosed to consumers, per U.S. federal regulation (https://www.greenbiz.com/article/unilever-rises-above-regs-chemicals-transparency).
Many scrubs and toothpastes may also contain plastic microbeads which accumulate in our water systems (see our previous microbeads blog post for more information about these little evils).
Phosphates are also a problem, particularly for aquatic environments. Phosphates are used in automatic dish detergents and laundry detergents to help soften water and remove soil, oil, and grease and have been banned for use in laundry detergents in the U.S. since the 1990s. Phosphates cause major issues for our aquatic ecosystems – the current toxic algal and hyacinth bloom in Hartbeespoort Dam is a good example.
|INGREDIENT||NAMES TO LOOK OUT FOR||WHAT IT'S FOR||WHY IT'S BAD||COMMENTS|
|Foaming agents||DEA, MEA or TEA||Makes products lather/ foam.||Have been linked to cancer and tumours.||We have been made to believe that the foamier the soap the better it must be working- NOT TRUE!|
|Foaming agents||Sodium Lauryl Sulfate/ sodium laureth sulfate||Makes products lather/ foam.||Leaves a residue in the heart, liver, lungs and brain from skin contact. That means once it enters your body some of it never leaves, causing a slow build-up of chemicals inside you.||Used in 90% of commercial products.|
|Parabens||Methyl, Propyl, Butyl and Ethyl||Preservatives||Parabens are endocrine disrupters, meaning they may disturb the hormone balance in your body and cause allergic reactions.||98% of cosmetic products contain parabens.|
|Fragrance or parfum||Frangrance or parfum||Makes products smell nice for longer.||Cause skin diseases, birth defects and even liver damage in animal testing.||Terms fragrance/parfum can represent thousands of different chemicals|
|Microbeads||polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate.||Exfoliating||Plastic beads accumulate in the environment.||http://greenatheart.co.za/2016/10/21/tiny-bubbles-the-villain-in-your-face-wash/|
|Phosphates||Phosphates||Helps to soften water in detergents.||Phosphates pollute aquatic ecosystems and encourage toxic algal blooms.||Phosphates have been banned for use in laundry detergents in the U.S. since the 1990s. They are still present in some dishwashing tablets etc.|
For more information on these and other harmful ingredients see the Ingredients Policy.
Many of these ingredients are controversial and there are studies to support both why they are safe and why they are harmful. Our philosophy is when in doubt, leave it out!
All these chemicals gradually end up in our rivers (and eventually the sea) as millions of us go about our daily washing and grooming activities. As the South African population increases and our cities grow, our water scarcity issues will become more and more severe. In the not-so-distant future we will most likely reach a point where the majority of our cities will need to start recycling their waste water in order to produce drinking water to supply the increasing population. When this time comes, what we are putting into our waste water will become even more crucial to our health. So start looking at what ingredients go into your cleaning and beauty products and consider our rivers and your drinking water next time you shop.
What you can do
Keep a look out for future blog posts discussing specific products we recommend, but in the meantime, try to make sure that any detergents or soaps you are buying, that end up being washed down the drain, are at least biodegradable or eco-friendly.
Easy ones to start with are: Dishwashing liquids (Dischem, Pick n Pay and Woolies all have eco-friendly brands), soaps or body washes and shampoos. and Wellness Warehouse have a huge range of products to choose from.
Check out the “What we are using” page to see which products the three of us are using and where you can get them.
You could also start making your own homemade eco-friendly cleaning products like these here