How our detergent footprint is polluting aquatic ecosystems

Source: Down To Earth

Relevance: Detergents not only pollute the environment but also devastate the aquatic ecosystem.


Water pollution caused by detergents is now a big concern in the global context. The per capita detergent consumption in India is around 2.7 kilograms per year. It is around 3.7 kg in the Philippines and Malaysia and 10 kg in the United States of America.

What is a detergent?

A detergent is a surfactant or mixture of surfactants that have cleaning properties in dilute solution with water. A detergent is similar to soap.

The detergents contain suspected carcinogens and ingredients that do not fully biodegrade. Few major components of detergents and their impact.

About Nonylphenol:

Nonylphenol is a hazardous chemical present in detergents, is known to enter water bodies and food chains. It bio-accumulates and can pose serious environmental and health risks.

Recently, it has been detected in human breast milk, blood and urine, and is associated with reproductive and developmental effects in rodents. It is recommended to find substitutes for nonylphenol.

About Phosphate salts:

Many laundry detergents contain approximately 35 to 75 percent phosphate salts.

Impact of phosphates:
  • Phosphate tends to inhibit the biodegradation of organic substances.
    • Non-biodegradable substances cannot be eliminated by public or private wastewater treatment.
  • Some phosphate-based detergents can also cause eutrophication. This deprives the water of available oxygen, causing the death of other organisms.
Other components:

Detergents also contain oxygen-reducing substances (ie, a chemical compound that readily transfers oxygen atoms) that may cause severe damage to fishes and other marine animals.

About BIS standard on phenolic compounds

The Bureau of Indian Statistics (BIS) has set the standard of phenolic compounds in drinking water {0.001 milligrams per litre (mg/L)} and surface water (5.0 mg/L).

Other impacts of detergents on water bodies:
  • Detergents are capable of destroying the external mucus layers that protect the fish from bacteria and parasites, causing severe damage to the gills.
    • Mostly fish die when detergent concentrations are near 15 parts per million (ppm); however, detergent concentrations as low as 5 ppm will kill fish eggs.
  • A few more harmful components of detergents and heavy metal concentrations (like zinc, cadmium and lead) can cause the water to grow murky. This blocks out light and disrupting the growth of plants.
    • Turbidity also clogs the respiratory system of some species of fishes. Pathogens from these toxic water bodies cause diseases, some fatal, in human or animal hosts diseases.
  • Drinking water contaminated with detergents can be hazardous to human health. The use of eco-friendly and biodegradable detergents should be encouraged to lower our laundry footprints.
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